An audit by the D.C. inspector general has found that the city’s primary task force for providing services and outreach to former prisoners lacks the “fundamental” tools and resources needed to effectively carry out its mission.
The report, which the inspector general delivered to D.C. lawmakers Monday, comes as city officials have struggled to curb a growing number of murders, which they have partly blamed on violent ex-offenders living in the community. The report also found that the office lacked a “strategic plan” and has not worked effectively with other District agencies to provide services — such as education, job training and help in obtaining benefits — to people released from prison and struggling to reintegrate into society.
As many as 10,000 people return to the District from behind bars every year, according to local policymakers.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declined to comment on the audit Tuesday. But a spokeswoman, LaToya Foster, said the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs “plays an important role in bringing together multiple District agencies to support returning citizens.”
Earlier this month, and just more than a week before D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas submitted his findings and recommendations to the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs, Bowser said that she was pursuing new legislation and two new pilot programs aimed at giving “returning citizens the tools they need to get back on their feet as they transition back into society.”
But according to the inspector general’s audit, the agency, which was established by former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) as the primary task force for ex-offender services, is falling far short of its mission.
The inspector general also found that the agency’s staff of four people, three of whom are ex-offenders, did not have the skills needed to apply for outside funds — something that advocacy groups say is badly needed to accommodate an otherwise meager budget.
According to the D.C. government’s Web site, the agency’s official mission is to provide “zealous advocacy, high-quality services and products, [and] up-to-date, useful information for the empowerment of previously incarcerated persons.”
But the office’s 2015 budget was $365,526, a paltry allotment, considering the rising cost of living in the District and the serious barriers to employment faced by people who have criminal records, advocates and policymakers said.
“When you think about how much is spent in the District on incarceration versus what is spent on reentry, it’s pennies on the dollars,” said Tracy Velázquez, a senior policy analyst for the Council for Court Excellence, a local group that has worked on legislation related to ex-offenders.
Although imprisonment costs about $182 per person per day, the budget for the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs amounts to only $84 per person returning from prison per year, Velázquez said.
Charles Thornton, who has been the office’s director since 2011, said in a recent interview that the agency managed to reach about 5,000 people in 2014. But he acknowledged that his staff members did not have the capacity to be completely proactive: “When a person comes to our door, it’s 100 percent voluntary,” he said. “We’re not a supervision agency; we’re not a probation agency.”
According to the audit, the office “relies on interns with irregular work schedules for client data entry,” hindering the input of accurate and current information on the former prisoners it is meant to serve.
But without adequate case management, “you find yourself homeless, jobless, needing services,” said Louis Sawyer, who heads the Reentry Task Force, a local advocacy group that supports the inspector general’s findings.
Sawyer, who is also a former inmate, said case managers or “reentry coaches” are essential to helping people make the transition from incarceration to society. “Now,” he said, “there are none.”
Because the District does not have its own prison — only a jail for short sentences and people awaiting trial — District offenders are spread across prisons in 31 states, according to Velázquez, which she said makes the District “probably the most complicated reentry in the country” and most in need of a well-organized system to ensure that those returning to society are able to connect with family and services.
Based on its findings, the Office of the Inspector General made 12 recommendations to improve the agency’s strategy, staffing and reach, several of which — such as developing a performance-review mechanism and seeking help from other agencies with writing grants — the ex-offender agency agreed to.
On other aspects of the inspector general’s assessment, the agency disagreed. It described the assertion that it was not collaborating effectively with other agencies as “simply erroneous.”
And in response to the suggestion that the agency augment its staff to improve its ability to seek grants, the agency said that “the responsibility for allocating staff rests with the mayor.”