A Carceral Capital: Washington, D.C.’s Unique Criminal Justice Systems

Kaid Ray-Tipton, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The capital of the United States of America, the District of Columbia, has a higher incarceration rate than any of the U.S. states. In fact, the District incarcerates people at a higher rate than any country in the world (including the U.S. as a whole). A complex set of factors may contribute to this high incarceration rate. Low educational attainment increases the risk of falling into incarceration; D.C. public high schools have graduation rates as low as 42 percent. Poverty influences incarceration and D.C. has a higher poverty rate than most states. Additionally, subtle policy decisions — including increased car searches and tougher penalties on drugs — that the city has made over the years could play a role.

Washington, D.C.’s criminal justice systems are fractured into many levels of oversight responsibility: the police chief and DCDOC director are appointed by the city’s mayor, the city’s attorney general is elected, the U.S. attorney and many judges are appointed by the U.S. President, and BOP’s head is appointed by the U.S. attorney general. Understanding the history and structure of this system is an important first step in developing effective local criminal justice reforms that take existing institutions into account. What follows is a primer on D.C.’s criminal justice systems.

Budget Constraints Forced D.C. to Transition Oversight to the Federal Bureau of Prisons

To avoid bankruptcy in D.C. in the mid-1990s, Congress passed the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997. This bill mandated that the federal government take financial responsibility for DC’s court system and began the process of closing down DC’s Lorton Correctional Complex. This prison closed in 2001, ushering in the era of the Federal Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) oversight of certain individuals convicted in D.C. and positioning the District as the only U.S. state or territory that does not operate its own prison.

Contact with D.C.’s unique criminal justice systems starts with an arrest. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) operates as D.C.’s primary law enforcement agency. Because the MPD’s police Chief reports to the Mayor, it is in the Chief’s interest to implement the Mayor’s policies. This can be done by dictating where the police force is deployed, how the police force is deployed, and what sorts of crimes will be criminalized. To execute these practices and “to safeguard the District of Columbia,” the MPD utilizes funds within D.C.’s Public Safety and Justice grouping of appropriations. In fiscal year 2018, the Chief helped manage the $548 million approved operating budget. This sector of the city’s budget is larger than the Department of Behavioral Health and Department of Health’s budget when combined. There are signs that the MPD budget will continue to grow. The MPD comprises nearly 4,000 sworn officers and makes over 30,000 arrests in a year.

Prosecutorial Decision-making

After an arrest is made, the MPD provides information about the arrested individual to the prosecuting agencies of D.C.: the Attorney General for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. The former prosecutes crimes like certain weapon offenses, D.C. municipal violations, and criminal traffic offenses; the latter prosecutes both federal and local crimes including homicide, sexual assault, and theft. It is up to the discretion of these prosecutors if they want to move forward with filing charges or release the individual from custody. Though both offices are responsible for prosecutions, they have fundamental operational differences.

Prior to a 2010 referendum, the D.C. attorney general was appointed by the mayor. The 2010 referendum was supported by D.C. residents in an effort to engender separation between the mayor’s and the attorney general’s office. In 2015, D.C. residents elected their first attorney general. In fiscal year 2018, the Attorney General assisted in overseeing a $101 million operating budget that is under D.C.’s Governmental Direction and Support appropriation group.

Initial Appearance

Once an individual is charged by either of the two prosecuting bodies, they will have their initial appearance in the D.C. Superior Court or the U.S. District Court for D.C. The other court operated by D.C. is the Court of Appeals that serves as D.C.’s supreme court.

Between the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, there are about 120 judges that are all appointed by U.S. presidents. In addition, there are 24 magistrate judges that are appointed by the chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court.

After an individual has their initial appearance, they will go through hearings, trial, and a verdict. If the judge decides the verdict is not guilty, or if the charges are dismissed, the individual is released. If the judge finds the individual to be guilty, or the individual accepts a plea agreement, a subsequent sentencing hearing will take place.

Incarceration and Supervision

Individuals who are convicted can be sent to Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia for probation or parole, community corrections, or juvenile facilities. The sentencing that has driven D.C.’s incarceration rate the most are the individuals being sent to the Central Detention Facility (CDF), Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), and BOP. The D.C. Department of Corrections (DCDOC) is run by a director who is appointed by the mayor and they operated a budget of $145 million for the 2018 fiscal year. In the same fiscal year, the average daily incarcerated population in CDF was 1,344 and CTF was 693. Importantly, individuals who are convicted in D.C. are eligible to be sent to BOP facilities around the country for local crimes. In addition to the two local facilities, “there were 4,500 D.C. residents in BOP custody” in 2018. The BOP — which is led by a U.S. attorney general appointee — operates 122 carceral facilities on a budget of $7 billion from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The State of the District

The absence of a locally run prison and the observation that there is not a single official or department to hold accountable could also contribute to D.C.’s distinct qualities. Understanding how these systems operate is an important first step in proposing policy solutions.

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