With about 67,000 former inmates in the District, city officials need to develop more innovative ways to keep recidivism at bay and violence out of communities, church leaders say.
“I think we have to have an alternative rather than a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ approach,” says the Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast. “It’s a matter of approaching problem areas more creatively.”
The Rev. Michael Bell Sr., pastor of the Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast, said the key is “opening up different alternatives and opportunities” for those returning from prison, because they “want to be able to provide” for themselves and their families.
Last year, the District saw an overall increase in violent crime, including a 54 percent jump in homicides, with 162 recorded. So far this year, the city has seen 51 slayings — a 2 percent increase in homicides over the same period in 2015, when 49 were recorded by this time.
D.C. police attributed the 2015 spike in murders to several factors, including a pattern of repeat offenders and more guns on the streets. In addition, a higher percentage of those arrested for homicide last year had prior convictions for felonies.
About 67,000 individuals with previous convictions live in the District, according to a December report by George Washington University professors Brian Cognato, Daniel Greene, Jeff Raderstrong and Josh Sagers. Based on 2012 data, the most recent year for which information was available, the figure represents a 10 percent increase over the 2007 estimate of 60,000 ex-offenders and the equivalent of 1-in-8 adult residents in the District.
(Comparable data for other major cities were unavailable. But a 2012 study of the states by the nonprofit judicial reform group The Sentencing Project found that Florida had the highest percentage of residents who could not vote due to a felony conviction — 10.5 percent. Mississippi was second, with more than 8 percent, and Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee had just above 7 percent.)
The paper’s authors estimate that about 3,360 D.C. residents returned home from prison in fiscal 2014. About 730 of them had been incarcerated for misdemeanors, 105 for federal felonies and 2,797 for local felonies. The city had an estimated population of about 673,000 last year.
The paper also evaluated the risk that some felons will re-offend and land themselves back in jail.
“The data available currently indicates that D.C. Code felony offenders and federal offenders are likely at higher risk of recidivism than sentenced misdemeanants,” the paper says.
According to a 2011 Council for Court Excellence report, about half of those returning from prison will return to jail within three years of their release. About 46 percent of ex-offenders the council surveyed said they were unemployed, and 77 percent said they received no assistance in helping them look for a job before being released.
“While the lack of a job is only one factor leading to recidivism, research shows that when the previously incarcerated have stable employment they are less likely to return to crime and public safety improves,” the Council for Court Excellence report says.
Mr. Bell, of Allen Chapel AME Church, said job training programs are important because they can lift people out of poverty who could have otherwise turned to crime.
“We need to try something,” the Southeast pastor said. “Poverty breeds a culture of violence.”
He said that those emerging from prison have a lot to face, and if they need to feed their families, they might turn back to a life of crime to make the money.
“The recidivism rate is high because there are no opportunities when you’re released from prison. It could be a great benefit for those re-entering,” Mr. Bell said.
When asked about recidivism rates for prior offenders, Mr. Hagler said it’s about more than policing.
“That’s a health care issue,” said Mr. Hagler, of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ.
Crime as a health issue
The District has taken some steps to address crime and recidivism as health issue. About a year ago, the Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. Department of Human Services began sharing information to more quickly help families affected by homicides.
The agencies identified five police service areas that historically have been hit hardest by violence and offered housing, employment and behavioral health services to those families affected by violent crime.
But job training is only part of the solution, and job placement is just as important, Mr. Hagler said. City residents returning from jail must provide for their families but have little opportunity for employment — and that can be demoralizing, he said.
Earlier this year, D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat and head of the judiciary committee, announced a plan to pay at-risk or recently released youths if they stayed out of trouble and completed job-training classes.
Based on a similar program in Richmond, California, the provision calls for the District to pay up to $9,000 a year to as many as 200 residents identified as being at risk for committing or being a victim of violent crimes if they participate in behavioral therapy and remain crime-free. Participation in the program would be anonymous.
But when budget time came around this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser decided against funding the program, opting instead for stricter policing policies and her own take on Mr. McDuffie’s proposal. She hired five community outreach officers to try to find at-risk youths so they can get enrolled in a job-training program that provides stipends that could lead to full-time jobs.
Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations in Northwest, echoed Mr. Bell and Mr. Hagler, saying an innovative approach needs to be taken because nothing else seems to be working — especially not “tough on crime” policies.
“Given the dramatic increase in deadly violence this last year, we need to look outside the box,” Mr. Lynch said. “You can increase the penalties all you want, but the city needs to be doing better with youth engagement.”
He suggested extending the school year, strengthening afterschool and weekend programs and offering assistance to officers who want to live in the neighborhoods they patrol.
The education factor
The District plans to extend the 2016-17 school year for 10 public schools. In February, Ms. Bowser announced that those elementary and middle schools will get an extra month of instruction, lengthening the number of school days from 180 to 200. Those schools also will offer two weeks of extra instruction in October and June, when students usually go on fall or summer break.
Ms. Bowser said that extending the school year will give students the equivalent of an extra year of learning by the time they reach eighth grade.
Nine out of the 10 schools chosen are located east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8, where much of the city’s violent crime occurs.
Homicides in Ward 7 make up nearly half of all slayings in the District so far this year. The ward has seen 21 homicides this year out of the 51 total in the District so far. That Ward 7 number is triple the seven homicides that had occurred by this time last year.
The Rev. Harold Brooks, pastor of the First Baptist Church of D.C. in Ward 7, said city workers have trained 32 members of his congregation in mental health certification, and other churches have followed suit. Using those tools helps his congregation talk with families of both perpetrators and victims of violence, he said.
“We’re trying to deal with it at its grass-roots cause,” he said. “We want to be well prepared.”
Mr. Brooks said that knowing and understanding the community can go a long way in bringing back to the fold stray youths who could end up committing crimes. He said it is especially important to protect senior citizens against violent attacks.
“I’m a man of faith, but I have a grave concern,” he said. “My main thing is to build relationships and connect with people in the community so they’ll look out for the senior members when we’re not around.”
The church plans on going through the mental health training again in October to bring even more members on board, he said.
Ward 8 has had it better this year, but has still seen 16 killings. That’s down from 19 at the same time last year. Both wards combined make up about 70 percent of all homicides in the District so far in 2016.
“It’s at a crisis level,” Mr. Lynch said. “The impact is tragic.”