THIS WEEK brought yet another report of serious problems with the District's halfway house system. But this latest study, conducted by the D.C. Auditor's office at the request of D.C. Council member Harold Brazil, comes with a twist. It focused attention on a little-recognized but major problem with the present system -- escapes of defendants, particularly those accused of violent or dangerous crimes, who are placed in pretrial detention in halfway houses by the courts.
The D.C. Department of Corrections has rightly taken its lumps over the years for ineffective supervision and monitoring of halfway house residents. But the courts are responsible for placing pretrial defendants accused of violent or dangerous crimes in halfway houses. It is a practice, notes the auditor, that is contrary to the intended purpose of the city's work-release program and "the traditional use of District halfway houses."
The practice is also a threat to public safety; it's clear from the record that Corrections can't possibly handle this population in these facilities. The auditor reviewed folders of 38 pretrial detainees who had been charged with violent, dangerous or sex-related crimes, and who escaped. Three-fourths had been assigned to halfway houses by the courts, and most then simply walked away, failed to return while out on a pass for an approved activity; 13 percent were charged with new offenses while thus free, one of which was a felony.
Auditor Deborah Nichols pulled no punches in her 16 major findings and 33 recommendations. After examining the court's placement practices, the persistent escapes and the risks they pose for city residents, victims and official crime witnesses, she stated: "Pretrial defendants accused of violent or dangerous crimes should not be placed in District halfway houses." Will the mayor, council and, most important, the courts, concur?