The D.C. Council is to be applauded for doing something few political bodies dare to do: It held the line on an item high on the public agenda.
In January, headlines screamed about conditions at the District's halfway houses: 50 percent of the residents of halfway houses were violent offenders, we were told (it was actually 12 percent); 60 of those accused of violent crimes had escaped and were still at large (the number was actually two).
The picture that ultimately came to light, while not a happy one, was far less extreme than these original reports. Yes, halfway house residents sometimes didn't return on time, but rarely were predatory prisoners released to such programs and rarely did inmates escape and hide.
Some inmates had had their cases dismissed and weren't required to come back to the halfway house. Some were detained in court on another charge or were late returning from court and so were listed as escapees. Some inmates came back a few minutes to a few days after they were supposed to return -- not excusable, necessarily, but not Bonnie and Clyde either.
The D.C. Council was told that a task force of department heads, federally appointed trustees and mayoral and legal system staff were working on the problem and would issue a report and recommendations. So, to its credit, the D.C. Council -- faced with a moral panic over a notorious situation -- waited. It waited until criminal justice professionals could look into the problem and recommend solutions.
The result was reported in a July 13 front-page article, which noted a drop in escapes and new procedures to track halfway house residents. The article even corrected the record on the number of real escapes vs. latenesses.
Unfortunately, before the task force could complete its work, a bill was introduced by D.C. Council member Vincent Orange to mandate jail prior to conviction for certain defendants, which would have added more prisoners to the District's nation-leading incarceration rate. The council refused to jump at Orange's costly, quick-fix solution, and the bill was defeated.
Put another way, the council seems to have learned that good things come to those who wait.
-- Vincent Schiraldi
directs the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and public policy organization based in the District.