D.C. is having mixed results five years after beginning the implementation of a comprehensive blueprint for a public health approach to criminal justice reform.
The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act — known as NEAR — was enacted by the Council in 2016. Tuesday, the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor Kathy Patterson released a report reviewing the implementation and impacts of the NEAR Act to see if the law was implemented as intended and what impacts could be demonstrated from its first five years.
Patterson tells WTOP some aspects of the wide-ranging plan are working well, others need fleshing out, and some have been ignored.
On the positive side, a nine-month transitional employment program for people between 20 and 35 years of age who are considered at risk of committing or being victimized by violent crime is promising.
“Folks who have been involved in the criminal justice system, it offers them training and subsidized jobs,” Patterson said. “It offers them a way to try to break the path of participating in public violence.”
Another element is the Violence Intervention Program, with contracts with three community-based organizations to disrupt violence.
“The violence interrupters are being deployed to high-violence communities, and they’re interacting with the communities,” said Patterson. “But, this one is really going to take a more sophisticated social science kind of study to say what the impact is on violence — we can’t prove what hasn’t happened.”
Patterson said the NEAR Act calls for the formation of D.C. Health’s Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity to provide services in local emergency rooms, and to provide counseling and trauma-informed care to victims of violence and their families. That entity has not been created.
However, the District is reaching at-risk young people through the current Department of Health.
“We’re the first city in the country, the report notes, that has really deployed this program in most of our high-trauma centers,” Patterson said.
However, not all hospitals with emergency rooms participate in the program, and sometimes the services aren’t available. The audit suggests tweaking the NEAR Act to state that the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants should oversee a city-wide network of hospital-based violence interventions that operate during specific, predictable hours.
Police, mental health program hasn’t been established
Despite the requirements of the NEAR Act, Patterson said the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Behavioral Health have yet to implement police officer-clinician teams to respond to behavioral health crises.
“That’s something that we find, in the audit, has simply been ignored as a mandate,” Patterson said. “The Bowser Administration’s failure to fully comply with the law has marred otherwise notable achievements.”
The Office of the D.C. Auditor report includes a response from the Office of Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice. The deputy mayor’s office said police and the health department proposed an alternative plan to the council to team officers with mental health professionals.
The mayor’s office’s recommendation “would appropriately lodge responsibility for developing and reporting on behavioral health diversion programs,” the health department, rather than the police department.
While officers have received some training in recognizing and interacting with people with mental health issues, Patterson said the more formalized Community Crime Prevention Team program, called for in the NEAR Act, would be more effective.
“It’s really a much more intensive partnership between these two agencies,” Patterson said. “It takes a public health approach of saying, ‘We want to stop a problem before it becomes a problem.'”
The audit is the first of three, which will continue to chart the implementation and results of the NEAR Act, Patterson said.