Moving beyond Initiative Measure 71 to create a fairer, more effective criminal justice system

By District of Columbia Bar

  • Email

By Marc A. Schindler and Jason Ziedenberg, Justice Policy Institute (First published for D.C. Bar Voices in 2014 a few days after Initiative #71 won majority vote)

Unofficial election results for Initiative 71-Legalization of Marijuana in the District of Columbia.
The election was held Nov. 4, 2014.

The passage of Measure 71 represents important and much needed progress for District of Columbia residents. D.C voters have clearly shown that they do not want their criminal justice system to focus on the arrest or prosecution of people for marijuana use or possession.

However, we need more than reform to our drug laws to make the system fairer, keep communities safe, and help more people who have been involved with the justice system successfully transition back to their communities.

Let’s build on the momentum of Measure 71 by refocusing on: Helping formerly incarcerated people secure a job and housing; finding more ways to keep people out of far-flung prisons and closer to home; and keeping young people out of the adult criminal justice system entirely. 

How can we begin to change these issues? The District's top leadership--Mayor, DC Council, and Attorney General--will play a pivotal role in influencing change in the following ways:

Reduce the barriers facing people returning from prison.
The city has taken important steps by putting money and effort into improving reentry services through the Office of Returning Citizens, helping individuals in the jail vote, and efforts to “ban the box” (when written job applications or employers ask job candidates to identify if have a criminal record).

But, we still have a long way to go to address the statutory and regulatory barriers we’ve placed on people with criminal convictions from getting a job, and getting housing.  

The District should heed the important message of a report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs: Address all the statutory and policy barriers that make it harder for the 60,000 individuals with a criminal record or the 35,000 people who have merely been arrested to access housing and jobs.

Keep more people close to home by improving supervision and sentencing, and reducing our use of the jail. 
When someone in D.C. is sentenced to a long prison term,they are often sent hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of miles away from their home because of the deal the City struck with Congress to have our prisoners housed in the federal system.

Research by the Urban Institute shows that one in five D.C. prisoners is imprisoned more than 500 miles from the District—some as far away as Florida, Texas or California. When we can keep people close to home, they can maintain community connections, support and be supported by their families, and are more likely to leave crime behind them.

We need to broaden our sentencing options, enhance treatment, and limit the use of the D.C. jail and supervise individuals in the community as often as possible to keep more D.C. residents close to home.  Some key steps include:

  • Sentencing reform:  We should look at ways to reduce select sentences, and  reduce the number of people who commit nonviolent offenses from going to prison from D.C. If we can better serve individuals on community supervision, use a much smaller jail as a last resort a sentencing option, we can reduce the number of people we are currently sending to Federal prisons;
  • Use the dollars we spend on the private, for-profit Central Treatment Facility differently: We should cancel the contract with Corrections Corporation of America to run the Central Treatment Facility. Instead, we should build on the experiences we have had in D.C. and other jurisdictions and build stronger networks of nonprofit service providers to meet individuals treatment needs.
  • Swift, certain, and smart supervision practices: We need to work with the federal government to help the Pretrial Services Agency and Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in their shift to “swift and certain” supervision practices. Let’s give probation and pretrial supervision staff the training, tools, and resources they need to quickly respond to behavior, hold individuals accountable, and link their supervision to services so they can succeed in the community.
  • Narrow the use of specialty courts.  D.C.’s drug and mental health court alternatives to prison should be limited and used only for people who would go to prison otherwise. They must not widen the net for people who could get treatment without an arrest, or conviction through diversion.  The City should also find other ways to get people the treatment they need before they end up with a conviction, when drug treatment was what they needed.

Keep young people out of D.C.’s adult criminal justice system.
Finally, the City should move quickly with the legislation before it to reduce the number of young people tried as adults and stop holding youth in adult correctional facilities, and follow up with broader reforms to the youth justice system in 2015.   

When youth are transferred to the adult system, incarcerated in adult jails and correctional institutions, and carry a criminal conviction, the research has shown that these youth are more likely to reoffend than youth kept in the juvenile justice system.

The D.C. Council could greatly enhance public safety and help young people succeed by passing the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act (YOARA). 

This legislation would change sentencing and juvenile corrections practices so that fewer young people end up being tried as adults, end up in adult jails. Instead, we should serve these young people in the juvenile justice system. The Council should pass and the Mayor should sign YOARA this year.  

To help implement YOARA, the next administration should take common sense steps to emulate what other states have done to reduce youth incarceration.

The District should screen youth who commit misdemeanor offenses out of the system so that only those youth who need intensive services are committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), and expand diversion options so that even more youth can avoid a commitment all-together.

And, our new Attorney General-Elect Karl Racine can play a role in this too. He can direct juvenile prosecutors to no longer request pretrial detention for misdemeanant youth—something that would free up space at the Youth Services Center so that the young people currently held in the adult jail could be safely held in the juvenile justice system.

We are proud to be part of a City that has endorsed an enlightened approach to drug laws that criminalized too many people in a racially disparate way. But, rather than see Measure 71 and marijuana law reform as an endpoint, this should only be the beginning of practical and common-sense criminal justice reforms to build safer, healthier, and stronger communities.

Recommended Articles:
D.C. jail helps inmates vote, a rarity nationwide [USA TODAY

The Collateral Consequences of Arrests and Convictions... [Washington Lawyers' Committee

...Felons far away from home: Effects on crime, recidivism and reentry. [House of Representatives]

"Swift and Certain" sanctions in probation are highly effective [National Institute of Justice

Testimony in support of Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act [Justice Policy Institute

Marc A. Schindler and Jason Ziedenberg are, respectively, the Executive Director, and Research and Policy Director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank working to reduce the use of incarceration. Schindler previously served as General Counsel and Interim Director of DYRS, and Ziedenberg previously served as Research and Evaluation Officer at DYRS.