Photo of Emily Tatro pointing to a presentation on a monitor.
Emily Tatro a policy analyst with the Council for Court Excellence. Photo by Brianna Bilter

Earlier this year, the D.C. Auditor released a report detailing decrepit conditions at the D.C. Jail and recommending the construction of a new facility.  

The District Task Force on Jails and Justice has been asked to articulate a vision for a new correctional plan, to make recommendations for who should be held in local facilities, and communicate the priorities of the community. It held two workshops in early August to solicit community input. Funded by the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, the task force is a partnership between the Council for Court Excellence, the Vera Institute of Justice, and the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens. 

In addition to the dilapidated infrastructure, the task force has been addressing racial disparities in the local criminal justice system and D.C.’s  lack of a prison system. Prisoners from the District are processed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and sent to serve their sentences around the country. 

The District is the only jurisdiction in which offenders are supervised by the federal government rather than local authorities. D.C. residents at the workshops recommended that the District establish local control over criminal justice affairs managed by federal agencies, such as the U.S. Parole Commission. 

Participants were largely in favor of releasing offenders from D.C. Jail who were still there only due to parole or probation violations. According to D.C. Department of Corrections data analyzed by the Vera Institute, a violation of parole, probation, or supervised release was the most serious charge faced by 20 percent of people in DOC custody in 2018. Many workshop participants also advocated for “disimprisoning” people charged with drug use, sex work offenses, and cases involving mental illness.  

For crimes that do not pose any direct threat to the community, the consensus was that minimizing reliance on the criminal justice system should be a priority. 

“It’s a question of how we can divert more people, not a matter of whether we should or shouldn’t,” said Cameron Okeke, a research associate at the Urban Institute, at the first workshop. “The criminal justice system is designed to manage and contain social inequities that are far beyond it.” 

Another popular topic was increased investment in social services, with an emphasis on youth and education.  

As for the jail facility itself, a proposal for a “campus environment” with open spaces and improved educational programming, including opportunities to build creative skills, received extensive support in the second workshop.  

Though diversion programs were considered preferable, a number of participants wanted a prison built in the city — or at the very least, a requirement for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to only relocate people within a limited radius — so that people serving time are less isolated from their families and support networks. 

““There’s not a lot of best practices when it comes to jails and justice. We’ve got to look at up-and-coming practices,” said one participant. Another said, “Best practices would be having people close to home.” 

The Task Force has announced a Town Hall Forum on August 21 and will submit its “phase one blueprint” at the end of September. Phase two will extend into 2020 to allow the team to develop a more precise strategy for reform.