- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

After listening to parents and other taxpayers in Adams Morgan, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had to convince federal prison officials that a halfway house full of adult felons living across the street from an elementary school was a bone-headed proposal. His personal intervention forced the Bureau of Rehabilitation Inc., the nonprofit organization that would have operated the facility, to begin negotiations for an alternative site. The about face left its director, Sandra J. Robinson, asking, "Are they supposed to go to all-black communities? Are they supposed to go to all-poor communities?" Of course, the answers are no and no. Perhaps the more pressing questions are what policies justify so many early releases? And why are halfway houses permitted in residential neighborhoods?
At least twice last year, Sal Seanez, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' assistant director for community corrections and detention, warned his agency's "partners" that the greatest challenge facing community corrections is the increasing local opposition to halfway houses. He urged them to be "proactive and look at ways to develop strong community ties" and warned them the responsibility is theirs. Clearly, in the case of the Adams Morgan halfway house, someone failed to take heed.
Indeed the issue of halfway houses, drug-treatment facilities and new prisons is a thorny one and will grow more intense as authorities close Lorton prison by year's end. The responsibility for most of those prisoners springs from the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Act of 1997, which remanded many of the District's prisoners into the hands of the Bureau of Prisons. An estimated 8,000 of them will be released over the next several years, and finding new sites for prisons, halfway houses and drug abuse facilities remains problematic in the District.
D.C. residents adamantly rejected a proposal to build a new prison in Southwest and rebuked former Mayor Marion Barry for supporting such an idea. Parents, homeowners and other taxpayers in Northeast and Southeast also vehemently opposed plans for halfway houses and drug abuse centers in their neighborhoods, too. In almost each instance those facilities would have been neighbors to schools, giving parents the impression that criminals and drug offenders are more important than children.
To be sure, Janet Reno's Justice Department has left the Ashcroft Justice Department, a huge policy quandary. What, precisely, is the point of a halfway house? Do drug-abuse treatment programs, including those that dispense methadone to heroin addicts, really stop abuse or merely substitute one addiction for another? Should those facilities be situated in residential areas, where schools, day-care centers and law-abiding taxpayers live? Or in commercial districts, such as the one on New York Avenue?
Proponents argue that halfway house inmates are screened and required to work as prerequisites of their release, and must stay drug free while they are "residents." The point, they say, is to transition criminals back into the community.
A crucial problem, however, is that halfway houses are not located halfway between prisons and residential neighborhoods regardless of socioeconomic makeup. Many halfway houses are located in residential neighborhoods hardly reminders that a felon is one step away from prison. Those are concerns Mr. Ashcroft's Justice Department, and perhaps the D.C. Council, must address.

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