D.C. is missing out on over $3 billion in annual tax revenue due to its continual classification as a federal district, according to a recent report released by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). The report says that this revenue could go towards funding human services programs, including efforts to house residents experiencing homelessness.
Not only that, but D.C.’s status as a city is also keeping it from running its own prison system. Without a locally administered prison system, convicted felons from D.C. serve time in prisons across the country, where they may not have access to programs and tools that can prevent them from experiencing homelessness after release.
Over 50% of individuals experiencing homelessness in D.C. reported that incarceration was a cause of their homelessness, according to a 2020 report by the DCFPI. Citizens returning to the District after being incarcerated may contend with unemployment, a lack of savings, discrimination in the housing market and weakened family bonds, all of which can contribute to homelessness.
Re-entry programming is one major way prisons can work to prevent homelessness for felons after they are released, said Kate Coventry, the DCFPI’s deputy director of legislative strategy. But since D.C.’s felons are spread out across the country, Coventry said the District has no way of controlling the programming they receive.
“What happens now is, people are in prisons across the country, and some of them have access to programming and some don’t,” said Kate Coventry, the DCFPI’s deputy director of legislative strategy. “It’s just really uneven.”
If D.C. had its own prison system, it would be able to implement re-entry programs, which could range from job trainings to signing up an inmate for disability benefits, said Emily Cassometus, the director of government and external affairs at the D.C. Justice Lab.
It would also allow D.C. inmates to serve their sentences closer to home, which would make it easier to stay connected with their family and friends who could support them once they are released.
“People are coming back from hundreds or thousands of miles away, many of whom haven’t had contact with anyone in the District for years or decades,” Cassometus said. “It can be very difficult to come back and reconnect with family or other people who would help you to find resources.”
Besides re-entry programming, D.C. could also have complete control over what happens to their inmates, including the amount of education they receive, the mental and physical health support they have access to and how long they are kept in solitary confinement.
But Cassometus warned that having a D.C. prison would only be the first step, noting that there would first need to be a “complete overhaul of the conditions and of the culture” at the D.C. Department of Corrections before it would be able to successfully run a prison.
Jails run by the department, which would be responsible for running the D.C. prison system should one be established, have already faced allegations of poor conditions. A 2021 U.S. Marshals Service inspection found that two of the District’s facilities did not meet minimum standards of confinement and led to the relocation of over 400 detainees.
“We definitely need a facility, and one that’s physically safe and that’s a healthier environment, but the building in and of itself won’t fix things,” Cassometus said. “We absolutely need to change the physical conditions, the programming, and the culture all in tandem to get something that’s actually going to make our city safer.”