Task Force Says D.C. Can End Reliance On Federal Prisons In 10 Years. Here's How The group also says that D.C. can incarcerate as many as 50% fewer people by 2031, through a combination of criminal justice reforms and community reinvestments.
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NPR logo Task Force Says D.C. Can End Reliance On Federal Prisons In 10 Years. Here's How

Task Force Says D.C. Can End Reliance On Federal Prisons In 10 Years. Here's How

An independent advisory body says D.C. should replace its aging jails with a new facility and bring people serving prison sentences far from home back to serve them locally. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

In the next decade, D.C. could reduce incarceration by half, bring residents who have been in federal prisons in other states back home, and replace the D.C. Jail, which has been in deep disrepair for years.

The steps for doing this are laid out in a report from the District Task Force on Jails and Justice, an independent advisory body of lawmakers, advocates, and law enforcement stakeholders that formed in 2019 and was charged with coming up with a plan to replace the city's aging jails and re-envision its criminal system.

The panel's report, released Thursday, makes 80 recommendations for local and federal policy changes, addressing everything from day-to-day operations to sweeping social services reforms.

"This isn't just about a new building. It's about so much more: Who we are and what we want to be," says Councilmember Charles Allen, who served on the panel and who chairs the committee on public safety that created the grant for the task force in 2018.

Allen recognizes that implementing these recommendations would take significant effort, but he says it must be done. "As we grapple with racism and inequity in the midst of a pandemic ... now is the time for meaningful change," he says.

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The report's recommendations address both racial disparities — a population snapshot of D.C. residents serving in federal prisons last summer shows that 95% of them were Black — and issues of local control, which have plagued D.C.'s system for years and leave many incarcerated in facilities with little local accountability.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, about 5,800 D.C. residents were in jail or prisons on any given day. About 1,800 were at the D.C. Jail and its adjacent lower-security facility, the Correctional Treatment Facility. The remaining 4,000 were outside of the district, held in federal prisons across the country. (D.C. relinquished local control over much of its criminal justice system in the late 1990s because of financial troubles, which means D.C. residents serving longer sentences do so hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles away from their families in the District.)

This is the timeline the District Task Force on Jails and Justice suggests for closing the existing D.C. correctional facilities and bringing home all residents from Bureau of Prisons facilities. The Council for Court Excellence/ hide caption

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The Council for Court Excellence/

To avoid sending prisoners out of the city, the task force suggests building a new facility in D.C. with more beds (2,900 to 3,800) than the current jail. The task force says it could be built in two parts and completed by 2031. In the meantime, it says D.C. should start working with the Bureau of Prisons to steadily transfer people from federal prisons back to D.C.

When it opens, the new facility "should be used as a last resort to house people only when community alternatives are deemed insufficient, inappropriate, or infeasible," the panel says. That means reducing incarceration, which the panel says could be achieved by reshaping the city's approach to law enforcement and placing resources into areas like housing, behavioral health, and restorative justice.

Part of this plan involves defunding D.C.'s police department, something the local Black Lives Matter chapter and other activists have repeatedly demanded.

The task force recommends reducing the Metropolitan Police Department's budget by up to $120 million per year over the next five fiscal years. The cuts, the group says, could be achieved by reducing the force's military-style equipment and crowd control supplies, gradually reducing the number of patrol officers by 25% and eliminating the School Safety Division contract that puts police in D.C. schools. The group says the city could also save money on staffing for the D.C. Jail by incarcerating fewer residents.

Several government and law enforcement officials served on the panel, including the Attorney General of D.C., the acting U.S. Attorney, representatives from the Metropolitan Police Department and the corrections officers union, and the directors of D.C.'s Pretrial Services Agency and D.C.'s Department of Corrections. The panel also included returning citizens, academics, faith leaders, health care providers, lawyers, and other advocates for addressing criminal justice and interrelated issues like housing and sex work.

Some 70% of members present at a December meeting supported the recommendations in the report, though the panel is not releasing how individual members voted.

In an emailed response to an inquiry about the report, MPD's deputy director of communications Kristen Metzger says the department looks forward to more dialogue about the recommendations, but disagrees with immediately defunding the police department.

"We appreciate the time and effort that the task force members have invested in this," Metzger writes. "MPD will be ready to work with Mayor Bowser and the Council in determining the best steps forward for the District. But as we saw on January 6th and throughout 2020, the demands on MPD are many. We do not think that drastic reductions in policing will help to safeguard our residents absent significant structural changes in other safety and service mechanisms that have been tested and proven effective here in the District."

Acting Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart writes in a statement that he "look[s] forward to reading the report's recommendations. There is much work to be done to ensure the safety of residents in every neighborhood and the report can serve as a resource in these collective efforts."

The panel further suggests ways that savings from the police budget and other reforms could be put toward efforts to keep residents out of prison. For example, the report proposes increased mental and behavioral health staff in D.C. public schools, a new community center to support people with behavioral health needs, an affordable housing pilot for residents returning from incarceration, and a new restorative justice community center that could create space to deal with community conflicts without using the traditional criminal system. The group also recommends that the city expand its use of violence interrupters—members of the community who work outside the criminal system to try and prevent violent crime and gun violence in D.C.'s neighborhoods.

The report outlines extensive reforms to charging, sentencing, and parole. It recommends reducing certain sentences when possible and repealing mandatory minimum sentences by 2022. It also suggests that the city start using a 24/7 hotline for pre-charging arrest decisions—which could eliminate jail stays for many people arrested by MPD who prosecutors don't end up charging with crimes.

To reduce incarceration for the youngest people in the system, the task force is asking the D.C. Council to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 21, meaning no one under that age would be incarcerated in the D.C. Jail. The report also asks D.C. Superior Court to create a "problem solving docket" for people 25 and younger, which would allow more young adults to participate in community-based programs instead of being sent to jail.

It also asks for specific investments in services for people returning home to D.C. from prisons. Previously unpublished data the Task Force obtained from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) suggest that few people from D.C. in federal prisons have participated in educational programs for job training, parenting, technology, or preventing drug abuse, even though BOP policy dictates that people nearing their release dates should be prioritized for classes.

Over 70% of the incarcerated D.C. residents who responded to a task force survey said they were worried about getting health care, finding jobs, and gaining community trust and support. Most had been the victim of a crime, and more than 70% said they had a family member who had also been incarcerated.

Survey results from more than 452 respondents, all D.C. code offenders incarcerated in federal prisons as of November. Council for Court Excellence/ hide caption

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Council for Court Excellence/

The goal of the task force, chair Shelley Broderick wrote in a letter introducing the report, was to use "a process of deep engagement with justice-involved people—individuals, families, and communities most directly impacted by incarceration whose voices are so often left out of policymaking." The task force held community town halls and focus groups, including groups inside D.C. corrections facilities. It also sent out a survey to people from D.C. who are currently incarcerated in federal prisons. According to its report, at least 2,000 members of the broader D.C. community were given an opportunity to weigh in in some form.

Throughout the process in D.C., abolitionist organizers with the local No New Jails movement pushed for the recommendation of no new correctional facility at all. They wanted to see D.C.'s existing jails torn down and left unreplaced, and said constructing a new facility would only encourage law enforcement and the wider legal system to fill it with people who shouldn't be incarcerated in the first place.

Of the 452 people incarcerated in federal prisons reached by the task force's November 2020 survey, a majority said they would prefer to serve their sentence in a prison located in the District. More than three quarters of the respondents said they would prefer to return to a D.C. Jail facility for the last six months of their sentence if given the option—but of those, two thirds said they would only want to do it if they could stay at the newer, lower-security Correctional Treatment Facility and not the D.C. Jail.

Tyrone Hall, a member of the Task Force who was released from the D.C. Jail last July, said it was "important for returning citizens to be involved, because you have to be in the facility in order to know what's really going on."

Hall said he contracted the coronavirus while at the D.C. Jail, which he called a "hostile environment"—and insisted on a path of transformation, not rehabilitation, "because you can't rehab something that wasn't there to begin with."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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