In spite of recent declines in the District of Columbia’s incarcerated population, the reach of the District’s criminal justice system is broad.
D.C. has a uniquely structured system of incarceration that differs from those of the 50 states. Most people who are sentenced to serve time for offenses classified as felonies in the official D.C. Code are prosecuted by a federally appointed U.S. Attorney and imprisoned under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, rather than a prison system managed by the District of Columbia itself. People who are sentenced to serve time for misdemeanors, however, are incarcerated locally under the jurisdiction of the D.C. Department of Corrections.
Between 2008 and 2017, there was a 30 percent decrease in the number of people serving time for felonies, and a 35 percent decrease in the population of people serving time for misdemeanors. Still, over 100,000 people have been arrested, and approximately 40,000 have been convicted of a D.C. Code offense in the last 10 years, according to estimates from the D.C. Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. On any given day in 2018, there were 2,070 people incarcerated locally under the jurisdiction of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Nearly two-thirds of those incarcerated by the Department of Corrections are held in the Central Detention Facility, which has a notorious reputation for crumbling infrastructure and unsafe conditions.
Incarceration in D.C. disproportionately affects people of color, particularly Black people. In 2014, Black adults were imprisoned at 72 times the rate of white adults in the District, and while Black residents made up 45 percent of the adult population, they represented 96 percent of the population serving time for D.C. felony violations.
Many key aspects of the District’s criminal justice system are under federal rather than local control, limiting the ability of the District’s lawmakers to combat mass incarceration on their own. In many circumstances, this means that District residents are federally prosecuted, face harsher penalties, and are ineligible for the District’s rehabilitative programs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
D.C. can reduce the reach of its criminal justice system by implementing just a few sensible reforms:
Fully implementing and funding the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Result (NEAR) Act, which prioritizes community-centered violence interruption, trauma-informed care, police accountability, and access to housing, health care, and jobs as the most effective ways to address crime.
Decriminalizing many non-violent, low-level offenses such as drug crimes, sex work, and nuisance offenses.
Amending the District’s criminal code to reduce sentencing ranges.
Regaining local control of the District’s criminal justice system and refusing to cede greater control to the federal government.
Implementing restorative justice programs.
Reforming harsh pretrial detention practices.
If D.C. were to follow these and other reforms outlines in this Smart Justice 50-State Blueprint, 2,723 fewer people would be in prison by 2025, a 50 percent decrease in the number of people serving time for D.C. code violations.
For more information, along with detailed breakdowns of D.C.’s incarcerated population and the reforms needed to reduce it, click here.
Reducing the prison population won’t end racial disparities in prison on its own. It is critically important to address the practices of police, prosecutors, and judges that contribute to racial disparities. Any solution to this problem will require explicit racial justice strategies. Examples include:
Ending over-policing in communities of color
Evaluating prosecutors’ charging and plea-bargaining practices to eliminate bias
Increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration
Reducing the use of pretrial detention
Requiring racial impact statements before any new criminal law is passed
Fighting discriminatory gang sentencing enhancements that disproportionately target people of color
Addressing any potential racial bias in risk assessment instruments used to assist decision making in the criminal justice system
Shifting funding from law enforcement and corrections to community organizations, job creation, schools, drug and mental health treatment, and other social service providers