The District Task Force on Jails & Justice may have begun its work “examining questions” about building a new correctional facility in DC. However, the group of more than 55 individuals, representing a panoply of organizations, has gone far beyond its original focus.
The group’s first report, “A Framework for Change,” released in 2019, seemed reasonable and tame. This second document — “Our Transformation Starts Today,” which is being released today — is more troubling. It is at once sweeping and radical. There are 80 recommendations that include, among other things, reducing the footprint for drug-free zones, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, setting the maximum parole to two years for a felony offense, prohibiting revocations of parole and supervised release based solely upon new criminal charges that have not reached a disposition of guilty, and reducing the number of corrections officers at a newly constructed jail.
Whether you see those proposals as good or bad depends on where you stand in the criminal, social and racial justice reform movement. Tyrone Hall, a Ward 1 resident who served on the task force, is excited about the recommendations, asserting that they could alter the terrain for District youth as well as adults currently in the DC Jail or soon returning to their communities.
During an interview with me earlier this week, he said he understands the criminal justice system based on firsthand knowledge. He has been in and out of jail since he was 12 years old. In 2019, he thought he was on the right path, but an encounter with a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer ultimately landed him back in jail for violating parole.
In July, he was finally released from jail and has been working with both the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens and the Council for Court Excellence (CCE). The latter organization funded much of the task force’s work through a grant from the DC Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants.
“I think this report will open the eyes of the community and keep them engaged,” continued Hall, who on behalf of the National Reentry Network helped conduct a door-to-door survey. “A lot of African American senior citizens” want to see change. “More and more people have come out and voiced their support. We have to be consistent and give these people results.”
Shelley Broderick, dean emerita of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, led the task force and called its reports “some of the best work I’ll ever be involved in.”
“Blacks are 47% of DC, but when they represent 86% of those arrested and 92% of those who go to jail, and 95% in the [Bureau of Prisons], you know we’re getting something wrong,” continued Broderick. Currently, more than 1,800 people are in DC Department of Corrections (DOC) custody, and another 4,100 are in federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody serving sentences for convictions under local DC law, according to the task force’s report.
The number of African Americans and other people of color populating the country’s jails and prisons has long ignited calls for criminal and racial justice reform. Those demands grew to a fever pitch last year, after the world watched a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, grind his knee into George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, making it impossible for him to breathe and resulting in yet another death of a Black man at the hands of law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement helped lead protests in cities and counties throughout the country, demanding that governments defund the police.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we’re two years ahead of the rest of the country,” said Broderick, citing the group’s recommendations, each of which describes the potential impact on racial equity.
The DC Council last year voted to reduce the mayor’s proposed MPD budget and restore control of in-school safety to the DC Public Schools chancellor. The legislature also increased funding for violence interruption programs.
Many DC residents embrace the concept of criminal justice reform and racial equity. And reducing the number of Blacks and other people of color who land in jails with long sentences for minor offenses is an admirable goal. There is good reason for concern, however, about how the task force wants to achieve it.
Many residents will assuredly worry about continuing to divest the MPD, including cutting budgets for crowd control supplies, as recommended by the task force. Concern is understandable considering that DC police officers were critical to saving the U.S. Capitol and rescuing legislators from a mob of murderous insurgents on Jan. 6.
Further, it’s clear that while violence interrupters may help calm some communities, they are not a panacea. The task force has proposed that in fiscal year 2022, the council should allocate more funds to the Office of the Attorney General’s Cure the Streets program and the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement’s Violence Intervention Initiative. The group has suggested that the proposed increase has a price tag of $15 million.
Did task force members miss the memo that DC and the rest of the country are in the middle of health and economic crises that have constrained budgets?
Critics of the task force’s recommendations also are likely to be disturbed by calls to decriminalize more drugs, allow more criminals to return to their neighborhoods more quickly, and reduce the number of correctional officers employed by the DC Department of Corrections following the construction of a new jail.
They may be seeing flashes of the wild, Wild West. Who remembers those days when inmates regularly escaped the DC Jail?
While Ward 6 DC Council member Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, and DC Attorney General Karl Racine were task force members, don’t think that will quell opposition to the transformation plan. Not only do the proposals increase spending, but they also are centered more on the needs of individuals who committed crimes than on the needs of their victims or law-abiding citizens.
Consider, for example, that the task force advocates for creation of more affordable housing, workforce housing and homeownership opportunities. Returning citizens should be targeted as beneficiaries of these new initiatives, according to the report.
Allen may already be getting the message about providing support for victims. Interestingly, earlier this week he introduced the Expanding Supports for Crime Victims Amendment Act of 2021, which he said will expand eligibility for victims’ compensation, create new “crime victim advocates” for certain serious offenses, and strengthen the District’s hospital-based violence intervention programs.
“Crime victims need safety and healing to move forward,” Allen said in a prepared statement. “That doesn’t happen automatically in our criminal justice system. This is an opportunity to take more of a public health approach to supporting victims, and it will help us reduce gun violence, by treating trauma and violence like a contagious disease and aggressively stopping its spread.”
Broderick said she knows not everyone will support the direction being proposed. She obviously is hopeful the critics might come around. She cited as an example the protracted struggle over Oak Hill, the District’s former youth detention center. “Smart, thoughtful people said, ‘Wait, let’s look at who we’re locking up.’
“We ended up with New Beginnings. Now we have the chance to do it again,” she added.
Undoubtedly some of the proposals, if implemented, would produce improvements. In my view, however, the task force’s recommendations deal with the symptoms. What ails the District criminal justice system is the absence of local control.
“A lot of us are already developing a blueprint of what criminal justice looks like under [DC] statehood,” Broderick said when I asked her about that issue.
Still, the report doesn’t envision the return of the criminal justice system snatched from the city when Congress imposed the financial control board in the mid-1990s. DC’s Superior Court and Court of Appeals are federally funded, and the judges are presidential appointees. Powers once vested in the DC Board of Parole were transferred to the U.S. Parole Commission.
Further, there is no mention of transferring all prosecutorial powers to the city’s attorney general. Currently, Racine’s office has only limited authority to take certain cases to court. It’s the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia — another presidential appointee — who decides whether to prosecute felonies.
The fight for statehood is important. The city shouldn’t have to wait to regain control of the justice system. That change could address many of the problems raised by the task force, including reducing the number of District residents who find themselves in jail or federal prisons.
If folks want to fight, they should fight for that, now.