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The D.C. Department of Corrections held over 2,000 people a day in their custody in 2018 — and most of them were black, according to a new report by the District Task Force on Jails and Justice.
The report highlights the District’s reliance on the criminal justice system and offers specific policy recommendations to address public safety using other means. Focus groups were conducted by the National Reentry Network with 177 participants most affected by the criminal justice system. Results suggest the current D.C. jail does not meet the District’s needs.
Among the recommendations is the need for early investments in fulfillment of basic needs like safe and affordable housing to reduce involvement with the justice system before individuals even face incarceration.
Shelley Broderick, the Chair of the Task Force on Jails and Justice, and Quincy Booth, the Director of D.C. Department of Corrections, join the show to address the task force’s findings and discuss a path forward.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
DAN REEDYou're tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Dan Reed of Greater Greater Washington sitting in for Kojo. The D.C. Department of Corrections held over 2,000 people in their custody each day in 2018. And most of them were black according to a new report by the District Task Force on Jails and Justice. The reports highlights the District's over reliance on the criminal justice system as a means to address public safety.
DAN REEDThe National Reentry Network conducted focus groups with residents most affected by the criminal justice system in the District. And the findings suggest the current D.C. jail does not meet the city's needs. The report recommends investments and basic needs like safe and affordable housing to reduce the rate of incarceration. Joining me to discuss this today are Dominique Maria Bonessi, a WAMU Reporter. Thanks for being here.
DOMINIQUE MARIA BONESSIThanks for having me.
REEDShelley Broderick, Dean Emeritus of the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. Thanks for being here.
SHELLEY BRODERICKIt's a pleasure.
REEDAnd Quincy Booth, Director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Thanks for being here.
QUINCY BOOTHGood afternoon. It's a pleasure to be here.
REEDDominique, remind us, what is the District Task Force on Jails and Justice and what is it mandated with?
BONESSISo this task force has been mandated with coming up with recommendations as to what a new not just jail would look like in D.C., but what a new criminal justice system would look like. And they've been focused over the past year on the overcrowding issue in the jail and the lack of resources for inmates and returning citizens. So in the main findings of this report, it notes that out of the more than 2,000 inmates in the D.C. jail that were in custody because of a D.C. based offense in 2018, a quarter were held on non-criminal violations and more than a third were not sentenced and weren't facing charges of any violent crime charges.
BONESSIThere's also a lack of services for inmates, mental health, job training and reentry programs, and also looking at the disparities outside of the jail. So what contributes to someone going to jail while you look at lack of affordable housing, job opportunities and mental health issues?
REEDHow was the research for this report conducted?
BONESSIRight. So over the past year the task force surveyed 1700 D.C. residents. They held almost two dozen focus groups and with current and former. These focus groups were with current and former inmates and community residents that were impacted by relatives in jail. And they also collected data on the current prison population.
REEDAnd what would you say the main findings of the report are?
BONESSISo looking at the main findings, they're not surprising really. We saw, you know, predominantly black males, who were the ones that are being locked up and predominantly from wards, I believe, 5, 6 and 8.
BRODERICKFive, 7 and 8.
BONESSIFive, 7 and 8. Thank you. And these people many times, you know, had dependents in their homes who, you know -- I think more than half had dependents that relied on them for something. And then reports in the, I guess like there was a community engagement analysis done from these focus groups and from speaking with the community that they were looking for more support on job opportunities, economic opportunities and looking for more opportunities within the jail to, you know, when they get out they had those opportunities ready for them.
REEDShelley, if you had one takeaway that you want the public to understand from the work of the task force, what would it be?
BRODERICKThat there was widespread agreement among the members of the community we talked to and the people on the task force and the advisors that jail is just not the solution to this set of issues. It has to be a much bigger and deeper dive. So we've got to look at community investment to keep people from going to jail, all the different things that we can do that we know work that have worked around the world. This country locks up far more people for far longer than any developed country. Why is that? When are we going to figure that out? We have to move towards decarceration, community investment. We have to help people reenter successfully, and that takes money in the community for substance abuse, mental health treatment and the host of other programs that we can do if we save the money from locking so many people up unnecessarily.
REEDQuincy, you're the Director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Three of the listening sessions for the task force were conducted inside your facilities. Were you part of those meetings? And what did you learn from that feedback?
BOOTHSo I was not a part of the meetings. Just to make sure that people felt that they had a voice. I think sometimes by presence. Sometimes they may change the conversation. And so very familiar with Kourtney, who facilitated it and so was comfortable with not necessarily being there. Well, did I learn anything new from the findings, because Kourtney and I we spoke about it? I would say no because part of my regular routine is having conversation with the men and women that we have in our care not just around what's happening inside the jail, but also as they reintegrate back into the community.
BOOTHThere is one piece of clarification that I want to correct. There's not an overcrowding at the jail. I don't know where you got that information from. But that was something. Just to clarify for our listeners. That's something historically back in 2006 to 2008, there were overcrowding problems that they had at the DOC. But we pray we never go back into that space. So we're not overcrowded.
REEDShelley, you were also involved with the community focus groups that were convened during the research for this report. Did you hear anything that surprised you?
BRODERICKWell, the community -- just the level of how close people were on most of the issues. But a lot of the community engagement also happened with the task force, for example, going to the jail. I was very pleasantly surprised at how well run it was. Good job, Quincy. And how many wonderful programs and ideas they have. But what they don't have is enough space and a place that lends itself for meetings for education, for training. You know, they have all kinds of little pocket programs happening. But the space just doesn't work for it. If we were to shrink it, we'd be able to -- and have a facility built to facilitate working with families and programs for education and training, it would be a game changer.
REEDWhat would you say, Shelley, is the biggest shortfall of the criminal justice system in the District right now?
BRODERICKWe incarcerate people, who do not need to be incarcerated. They are not a danger to the community or to themselves. And if once we figure out that we need, sure, a secured facility for a small population, we should be thinking through and spending the resources elsewhere in the community to support people and keep them from going.
BOOTHSo in agreement with the Chair of the Task Force understanding we cannot arrest our way and lock people up as it relates to solving and addressing public safety within the community there are a lot of options and alternatives or opportunities for people to have experience without compromising public safety. In another piece that came up that we know about historically the jail has been populated -- 97 percent of our population are black and brown people, and that has historically been the case even now to date as the city's dynamics has changed. And so it's important for us as we start to have this conversation and reimagine this work around -- and it's not sort of doing the blame game of this and that.
BOOTHI think we can sort of be smart on if our goal is to make sure that our communities are safer, it's sort of how do we ensure that we have the appropriate investments and make sure that we have the right connections? Because oftentimes there are opportunities within communities, but sometimes the men and women that wind up in our care, they may not be knowledgeable of it. And so it's one, getting them aware of it, but also making sure that we fine tune and reinvest as Shelley mentioned earlier.
REEDMore than one of the recommendations on the report calls for the District to have greater autonomy over its criminal justice system, and localized decision making rather than relying on the federal oversight that it has now. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it would make a difference?
BOOTHSo I really don't have a final opinion on it. And the primary reason is that JPI had did a study for the city on that actual topic and the report was just finalized. And so we're currently looking through the recommendations and making sure that we, you know, use the recommendations and also meet with stakeholders before we move forward.
BRODERICKWell, I have a strong opinion about it. It will shock anybody who knows me to hear. Here's the problem. When we had the Revitalization Act in 1997 an unintended consequence, oh, good, the federal government will pay for our prisons. We didn't understand. The promise made was that our prisoners would be housed near D.C. within a couple of hundred miles. If fact, they're in 117 facilities all over the country, which breaks down families. Then they come back. There's not enough in the way of halfway houses. Half of the people coming back don't even get to go to a halfway house here. So they don't get the services they need for successful reentry. It's a train wreck. It's a terrible idea. We have more than 4,000 of our citizens farmed out all over the country. How is that good for D.C.? So we've got to bring local control to bare.
BRODERICKWe have to have parole decisions. Our parole board didn't lock people up for minor violations, you know. A dirty urine, you know, you don't need to be locked up for that. One of the things the findings that we had is 4 out of 10 people who were locked up currently in the jail last year got released and were reinstated on parole. They were locked up for a parole violation, but 4 out of 10 got reinstated, but they did an average of 44 days. When you're locked up for 44 days you lose your job. You're out of whatever educational opportunity you were doing. You're not taking care of your family and you're not being the caretaker or the parent that you need to be. It's a train wreck.
REEDAnd on the topic of short stays, one of the report's findings was that in 2018, 32 percent of the people at the jail stayed there for less than a week. What is that finding about length of stay say to you?
BRODERICKWe don't need to lock non-violent people up. It's not a community safety need. And so we should not be, again, taking the risk of their losing their jobs, falling out of their school programs and so forth. It's just a bad idea. We can do better. And other jurisdictions are doing better. You know, they've just announced in New York that they're going to close Riker's Island. They have decarcerated. They plan to cut in half the number of people who are locked up. Yesterday in Oklahoma 527 sentences were commuted for minor drug cases in non-violent cases. They're going to save $11.2 million just on that 527. And they're going to put it into substance abuse on the front end and the back end so that folks get the help they need so they don't land in jail or when they're returning they get the help they need to stay out of jail. It's just smart.
REEDSo, Dominique, what happens next? What are the next steps task force and is there a plan for implementing these recommendations?
BONESSIRight. So this is just part of one of this sort of task force's job. The next part of the task force will be coming up this next year. It will be coming up with implementing recommendations and deciding how the jail will be built and how it's going to look. That will take till next fall. And from there D.C. government will decide how they're going to sort of take those implementation ideas and really build this facility that is, you know, supposed to do all these great things. Mayor Bowser has already created a public private partnership office to pay for a new jail. She would want it to be done through a P3. But some other sources are, you know -- we're not really sure how it would funded yet or some other sources.
BONESSIWhen I asked Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen yesterday he said he didn't want to be thinking about it as a P3 yet or how it would be paid for yet because he really wanted to focus on those implementation recommendations that should be coming out next fall.
BRODERICKIt's important to note that that's a capital budget project too.
BRODERICKAnd one of the concerns raised today is that folks are fearful we don't do community investment if we have to do jail. But it's two different budget sources. And we can do both.
REEDWe've got a call from Matthew in Arlington, Virginia. Matthew, you're on the line.
MATTHEWOh, hello, thank you for taking my call.
MATTHEWMy question to the panel would be that since at least the early 1970s we've been having this conversation. I remember teaching my students in 1970 and making the announcement that the United States was second only to the Soviet Union with its incarceration rate, but we very quickly changed that when we became number one in the entire world. So I guess my question is what does the panel think that we have done or haven't done that has led to us having the same conversation in 2019, which is very valid be the way. I mean, I'm a firm believer in it. But what has happened in 45 years that actually nothing has changed?
REEDThank you, Matthew. Quincy, what would you say to that?
BOOTHSo I can only speak for D.C. I'm not going to speak, because I think it's a global sort of conversation. And I think there's definitely the will and intention here in D.C. with the creation of the task force. And I would say the task force quickly realized like this wasn't a couple of months study that I knew, because I have also been talking about this for multiple years prior to even coming into this role back in 2006.
BOOTHI think the challenging part in this something that the deputy mayor has stated over and over. It's sort of a -- I wouldn't say necessarily a competition, but it is limited resources in the city. And oftentimes when you're talking about a capital investment of this size, it's sort of the conversation that collectively, when you talk about everybody involved as far as the community and the stakeholders of either this or that, right? As it relates to this or that being are we going to fund roads, bridges, schools, etcetera or are we going to fund, you know, a new jail.
BOOTHAnd so I think the reality of it is that we're starting to have the deeper conversation around, one what are we using jails and prisons for, but then two reimagining a smaller facility that can still meet the needs while also reinvesting other things within the community. And so the way that we sort of reimagine it, again, we're not fully there yet, right? But we understand that we have in some regards -- we have the opportunity to do something better and different.
BOOTHWe have the opportunity to use the lens of looking through race to say, how can we make sure that we're fair across the board? And with that fairness how can we really become smarter on crime and make sure that we're investing in communities and not disrupting families in the way that historically has been done in the past.
REEDOne of the findings in the report was that participants were split over whether they supported building a new jail even as they expressed concerns over the conditions in the current jail. Where do you come down on that?
BOOTHSo I think when folks often talk about the conditions of the jail oftentimes and I'm just being honest and transparent and I'll say I can leave it to my colleague who had not been to the jail for over 20 years. There's a perception that people often have of the facility that's sometimes driven by what they see on TV. Now are we the ideal and are we at the North Star? Absolutely not. But the conditions are not oftentimes as dire as people sort of communicate. So I would say, here is side of the house where we do the dance.
BOOTHWhen you think about the investment that we're thankful that the city has continued to invest and Mayor Bowser also invested an additional $70 million for capital to maintain the facility. Over time from an investment of maintaining the facility we would have paid for another facility without getting the outcomes that we desire. And so it's not necessarily just the conditions. It's what the chairwoman actually stated a little bit earlier. We're trying to do a lot of innovation and we are doing a lot of innovation that I think we're coming back later to talk about college and career readiness and some other things that we have done. However, we're limited with space.
REEDShelley, we have to go, but you get the last thought.
BRODERICKWell, you know, we can do better as a community, and I think there's a hunger to take this on and make the changes. And I think it's thrilling to me that New York is doing what they're doing to close Riker's Island. Oklahoma is doing what it's doing. We're at the top of the wave and ahead of the curve, and I've very very happy about that. And it's a deeply committed wonderful task force. And there are a lot of people on it who can see this through. And I believe we will.
REEDThanks to all of our guests for being here today. After the break we'll talk about the diversity in medical marijuana. Stay tuned.
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