“This is not the way you should go about making a decision like this,” said Sulton, who is also founder and executive director of DC Justice Lab, a nonprofit that advocates for “community-rooted” public safety reform. “Ninety-three percent of the people sentenced in D.C. are Black. So your job is to fill your office and fill this room with people who can advise you about what is going on. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like you don’t have anybody Black working on legislation.”
The hearing was on Zoom, with Sulton looking sternly at the camera while testifying from her home in Northeast Washington. The discussion was part of a broader effort at reforming the city’s criminal justice system, which produces some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in arrest and incarceration rates. Black people are 47 percent of the city’s population but make up 86 percent of arrests.
Sulton noted that Allen, who is White, had scheduled the meeting for 9:30 a.m. on a weekday when many working people, especially Black people who disproportionately fill in-person essential jobs, would find it difficult to tune in. She also pointed out that the announcement about the hearing had been posted on the D.C. government website just three days earlier, too little time for concerned citizens to prepare cogent presentations.
“Where are the Black people on parole?” she asked Allen. “Where are the Black survivors of crime? The White people who are here have every right, but it is your job to make sure they don’t continue to play an outsized role in the development of policy in the city.”
Allen was nonplussed when he reappeared on the Zoom screen and proceeded to call the next witness. He did not respond to Sulton. But I wish he had engaged her. And hopefully he will set aside another hearing just for that.
Who gets to speak? Who gets a seat at the decision-making table? Let’s hear policymakers and advocates air out how that really works.
Sulton shared more with me after the hearing.
“I oppose parole boards because you have people meeting behind closed doors, making decisions in secret that affect the liberty of other human beings,” Sulton said. “And I oppose public policy being made that way, too. People working out criminal-justice issues policy in private, then presenting the final product to Black people, saying, ‘Look at this thing we came up with, isn’t it great?’ No, it isn’t. We need to be involved every step of the way.”
Allen, a Democrat who represents Ward 6 on the council, also spoke with me after the hearing. He pointed out that several Black parolees did testify and that he “works hard ” to provide residents with opportunities to participate in policymaking. But he appreciated the point that Sulton was trying to make.
“What I picked up on is that, in addition to coming up with the right decision, she wants us to make sure we are lifting up a number of voices and honoring the lived experiences of people in deciding which path to take,” Allen said.
He agreed that a certain racial sensitivity was called for when dealing with reform of the criminal justice system.
“I think that it is important for me as a White man to acknowledge that there are experiences that I have never had, but I am willing to listen carefully to the lived experiences of others,” he said. “And then take action coming from a place of compassion.”
Allen added: “When we look at the criminal justice system in D.C., the leaders of the Superior Court, the U.S. attorney, the office of attorney general, the leadership of the D.C. police, our mayor — all Black. But I would argue that they hold a diversity of perspectives that I don’t think can be boiled down to race alone.”
Sulton serves as senior legal adviser to the D.C. Criminal Code Reform Commission, as a member of the D.C. Police Reform Commission and as a member of the District’s Task Force on Jails & Justice — in addition to her work at DC Justice Lab and as a lecturer at George Washington University Law School.
“D.C. is one of the wealthiest, best-educated cities but still has the highest incarceration rate in the country. Why?” she asked. “Because of bad policies. And the reason the policies are so bad is because of a lack of inclusion.”
“During some years, 95 percent of the people incarcerated in D.C. are Black,” Sulton said. “For juveniles, that could be 100 percent. Just sit with that for a minute. We have a system of injustice that has been too big, too Black and too expensive for too long.”
She wants to see wholesale reform, an end to every inhumane penal practice, and the revocation of every unfairly applied law.
“We don’t need to hear more from the people who have helped to prop up that system,” she said. “We need to hear from people who are willing to fight for justice.”
At a future hearing, we might even find that Allen agrees.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.