Task force presents 80 changes to overhaul DC’s justice system

Two years after a group of dozens of D.C. community leaders took on a review of the city’s jail system, it is making 80 “thoughtful and concrete” recommendations for major changes to improve the District’s justice system.

In her note at the top of the 80-page report, Shelley Broderick, the chair of the District’s Task Force on Jails and Justice, said if D.C. implements the changes to its budget and policies now, it “will result in a transformative system overhaul within 10 years.”

The report brings to light troubling racial disparities within the prison system, which has long been criticized for its propensity to incarcerate young Black men.

After noting the steps District leaders took to reduce the prison population at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report breaks down the makeup of the 3,221 people who remain incarcerated. Of them, 3,150 are men; 3,078 are Black. Half are serving sentences for homicide or aggravated assault, and 599 are serving life sentences as of July 4, 2020.

Among those set for release in the next two years, only seven people have completed a parenting, technology or vocational class that is available to them, the report said.

Read the full report here.

The task force set before D.C. the goal of reducing the District’s pre-pandemic incarcerated population of 5,800 people by between one-third and one-half by fiscal 2030.

It also suggested building a nontraditional facility to house suspected offenders pre-trial, to be used as a last resort “to house people only when community alternatives are deemed insufficient, inappropriate or infeasible.”

“The physical structure of the D.C. Jail is a relic from a time when we believed only punishment would deter people from committing crimes and keep us safe,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen, who funded the task force’s work through his Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

“Today, we know that this kind of mindset — and the facility that reflects it — does not in fact keep us safe,” said Allen, who also served as a member of the task force, in a statement.

“Safety comes through a systemic commitment to rehabilitation, healing and accountability. Through our work on the Task Force, it became clear: This is not about one building. It’s about so much more; it’s about who we are and who we want to be. It’s about a comprehensive vision for a transformative and equitable justice system in the District.”

Allen advocated for reduced police funding and was part of the allocation cut D.C. police expected to receive in the District’s 2021 budget.

Other recommendations

The task force report follows that thread, recommending further cuts to the D.C. police budget to be reinvested in violence prevention programs.

The report also calls for reduced police interaction through cutting patrol numbers by 25% and limiting traffic stops. It supports bolstering community programs around behavioral health.

It suggests reducing certain crimes to civil offenses, such as drug crimes, and increasing the accessibility of mental health resources by opening a second Clubhouse Community Center, continuing teacher education on social and emotional learning, and improving the Community Response Team’s ability to complement or replace 911 police response if the call is for an individual experiencing substance abuse or mental illness.

The task force wants D.C. leaders to establish a 24/7 charging decision hotline so police officers can speak with someone at the U.S. Attorney’s Office before they arrest and charge someone with a crime.

“Fewer people are detained on charges that are later dropped” with this method, the report said.

It also recommends the city create participatory budgeting to give residents control over a portion of the District’s budget for community investments.

“It’s time for real change and the need is urgent,” Broderick said in her note on the report.

She added that the members on the task force will “continue to champion these findings … to realize a more fair and equitable criminal justice system going forward. We can do this!”

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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