DC task force recommends major investments in affordable housing to prevent crime

The District Task Force on Jails and Justice released Phase II recommendations to the Mayor to transform the city's criminal justice system on Feb. 11, 2020. They've asked to invest in more affordable housing to help Black and brown communities, and prevent crime.

The District Task Force on Jails and Justice released 80 recommendations to Mayor Muriel Bowser yesterday to transform the District’s criminal justice system. By taking an approach that “prioritizes prevention and care” overpolicing and punishment, the task force strongly recommends building more affordable housing to aid low-income communities and support returning citizens as they re-enter society.

The task force is an independent non-governmental body created in April 2019 by the Council for Court Excellence to engage with communities impacted by incarceration, and recommend transformations to the city’s jails so that they are “part of a just and equitable system.” The new recommendations are part of a 10-year plan to transform the criminal justice system, detailed in their Phase II report. The task force held a webinar to discuss key findings the morning the report was released.

The report states that many of the recommendations were made in light of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

“In recognition that conversations about racism in the criminal justice system have long been silenced, the Task Force is explicitly naming that reality and committing to antiracism in its work,” the report states.

Through the lens of antiracism, the task force says it considers the widespread and harmful effects of overpolicing Black neighborhoods and criminalization of Black children. The report found that although Black residents make 47% of D.C.’s population, overpolicing led to 86% of arrestees and 92% of the D.C. Department of Corrections population being Black. In D.C. public schools, Black children are 15.2 times more likely to be disciplined than white students. A FiveThirtyEight report found that D.C. has the largest racial disparities in arrests between Black and white residents in the United States, Black D.C. residents 7 times more likely to be arrested than white residents.

The Central Detention Facility and the Correctional Treatment Facility, collectively known as D.C. Jail was also sued by the ACLU of D.C. and Public Defender Service for poorly handling the spread of COVID-19 among its inmates. By March 2020, 200 inmates tested positive, and 470 were in quarantine. One inmate and one personnel died from COVID-19.

“The way the D.C. Jail handled the situation was unprofessional, and that caused other inmates to contract [the virus,]” said Tyrone Hall, a member of the task force who was incarcerated during this period.

This spurred D.C. Council to act quickly, which led to rapid decreases in the number of inmates and corrections personnel in D.C. Jail. These unexpected shifts to protect incarcerated people during the pandemic also provided supporting data for task force’s core recommendations.

“As we looked at the public health emergency, it really created the will and urgency to act,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen during the Feb. 11 webinar. D.C. Jail reduced its capacity by 500 inmates in June 2020 through methods including compassionate release. They mostly released people charged with parole violations and pretrial misdemeanors. MPD reduced the number of arrests they made by issuing citations instead. Allen states these reductions were done at a rate that the District would have been hesitant to enact outside of a health emergency.

To the task force, this demonstrated that the dramatic reduction of people inside correctional facilities without negatively affecting public safety was possible. Allen said they were now equipped with proof that transformative reduction of police forces and correctional facilities was certainly possible, and would lead to positive changes in communities.

“A lot of these steps, they just make sense,” Allen said. “They’re just good public policy, pandemic or not.”

Recommendations made in Phase II were also mostly based on surveys and research conducted in Phase I with various groups affected by incarceration, including people experiencing homelessness. A main concern raised by returning citizens during Phase I was housing. On top of generally needing a place to live after leaving incarceration, survey respondents repeatedly brought up the importance of stable housing for getting a job, maintaining mental health treatment, recovering from substance abuse and more.

“Housing is the number one request that people have when returning to their community,” said Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing and a task force advisor. “Without housing, it’s not really possible to really get the things you need in your life to move forward.”

A lack of housing for returning citizens has directly contributed to D.C.’s homeless population. In 2019, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that 57% of people experiencing homelessness in the District were previously incarcerated. 55% of respondents said incarceration caused their homelessness.

Additionally, several respondents in the Phase I plan wrote about gentrification and overpolicing creating unsafe environments in communities, and among people experiencing homelessness.

“I might be out on the street doing what I used to do because I don’t have the money or I don’t have the resources for that medication, or that housing, or even to catch the bus to my mental health clinic,” wrote one respondent.

Because of this expressed need, Respress and other members of the task force’s subcommittee on community investments and alternatives to the criminal justice system stated that building more affordable housing and providing more housing vouchers is a priority recommendation for returning citizens in the Phase II report.

“We focused on vouchers, because we know that’s what we don’t see enough of in the system right now, and it’s something we know that actually makes a difference in the criminal justice system,” said Emily Tatro, policy analyst for the Council of Court Excellence and task force advisor.

The report recommends to the mayor’s office, starting fiscal year 2022 to create a four-year housing pilot for returning citizens to get them housed as quickly as possible after release. It also asks for funding to be put into building more affordable and workforce housing units, and put more funding towards vouchers and for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is used to build affordable housing.

The plan starts in fiscal year 2022 instead of FY2021 as the task force wanted to give time for recovery from the pandemic’s effects on this year’s city budget. In December, DCist reported that the mayor’s office and the Department of Human Services unofficially pulled back funding of at least six non profit organizations that provide services to people experiencing homelessness in the District. However, Chief Financial Officer Jeffery Dewitt testified before D.C. Council last week that the District ended fiscal year 2020 with a $526 million budget surplus.

[Read more: DC is cutting funding for homeless services as COVID cases surge]

Tatro said how the mayor’s office and councilmembers implement task force recommendations regarding building more affordable housing units is up to them. “But the task force’s advocacy will be absolutely focused on housing as one of the early investments for people, because we really know it makes a difference,” she said.

The task force and its subcommittee consists of government officials and nonprofit advocates across the board. Councilmember Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, is the only councilmember on the task force. Of the 26 members, there are two other elected officials: Attorney General Karl Racine and ANC7F Commissioner Tyrell Holcomb are also members Two employees within the Bowser administration are also members: Quincy Booth and Arnold E. Hudson, Sr. of the Department of Corrections and Interim. Seventy percent of members voted in favor of the recommendations.

The report also asks for quick approval of all permits required to build a long awaited men’s halfway house in Ward 7. CORE D.C., a nonprofit, was awarded a contract in November 2018 to develop the facility in Ward 5 and was met with immediate community backlash as well as a lawsuit from the only halfway house for men in DC at the time, Hope Village. The developer behind the halfway house then backed out of the contract. Hope Village was boarded up last year, according to a Washington Post report.

[Read more: “We’re all we got:” Former and current Hope Village residents fear the future of re-entry in DC]

The report also asks for CORE D.C. to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with neighbors surrounding the halfway house to address community concerns and create a basis of cooperation.

“It is not about rehabilitation of prisoners, it is about the investment in marginalized, over-policed communities,” said Hall, the formerly incarcerated task force member.

As such, the task force recommends funding a “housing-first” reentry pilot program through making budget cuts to the Metropolitan Police Department. They state that a 1% cut in funding of MPD would provide $5.2 million to invest into the program.

“The bulk of the task force’s recommendations urge the District to divest from policing and incarceration and invest those funds directly into communities, especially Black communities that are always unjustly overpoliced and criminalized,” said Doni Crawford, another task force subcommittee member and policy analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

The report also recommends that the mayor should engage in participatory budgeting, where residents would have direct control over a part of the city’s budget to invest into their communities.

Those budgeting meetings are recommended to be concentrated in wards 5, 7, and 8 — which Crawford said are disproportionately impacted by D.C.’s criminal justice system.

“I believe it would be worthwhile for these wards and Black communities to have more control over how the District’s resources are spent, given that they have often been left behind in the city’s prosperity and resurgence,” Crawford said.

Tatro confirmed that people experiencing homelessness would be included in these participatory budgeting meetings, as they were in Phase I surveys.

Issues |Civil Rights|COVID-19|Criminalization of Homelessness|Health, Physical|Housing|Housing Vouchers|Nonprofits|Public Housing|Systemic Racism

Region |Ward 5|Ward 7|Ward 8|Washington DC

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