The District will not launch a controversial plan to pay its most violent gun offenders stipends to stay out of trouble this year, and the chairman of the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee says Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is to blame.
Bowser (D) did not fund a penny of a sweeping crime bill that the council spent months crafting in response to last year’s 53 percent spike in homicides. The centerpiece of the bill was the stipend program, aimed at replicating an acclaimed model in California. More broadly, the plan would have altered the city’s approach to gun violence by treating it as a public health emergency, including stationing social workers at emergency rooms around the clock.
But Bowser was hostile to the plan, sponsored by D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), saying she preferred a more robust police response. As a result, the judiciary chairman said he would not try to fund it by diverting money from other programs if Bowser would only implement it half-heartedly or not at all.
The conflict between Bowser and the council comes as this year’s homicide rate is likely to surpass last year’s spike and the problem has become a top concern among city residents.
Bowser is under increasing pressure to demonstrate that her go-it-alone approach can begin to reverse the trend. One national study has grouped D.C. with Chicago and Baltimore, with the three cities combined accounting for the majority of increased homicides in major cities nationwide last year.
“This is the mayor’s budget, and what we’ve done is try to improve it where we can, but it’s her budget,” McDuffie said in an interview. “It’s her ideas and her strategies for preventing crime, and it’s time to see how they work; she clearly sees things differently than the 13 members of the council.”
McDuffie advanced a public safety budget to the full council on Thursday that funds select parts of council’s crime bill — including a requirement that police collect and analyze more data on stop-and-frisk activities, funds to reconstitute a homicide elimination strategy task force and money for a pilot program for social workers at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
McDuffie dropped plans to add millions in funding for two new offices created under the council’s legislation that would coordinate dozens of crime prevention efforts now run by schools, the city health department, police and others.
Bowser has maintained that the council’s approach would have created unneeded bureaucracy and that more than a dozen offices are already doing similar work. Apart from the stipend program, the mayor has said she and the council do not differ dramatically in their approach to crime.
The council did kill Bowser’s proposal last year for expanded powers in the wake of the homicide spike, including warrantless searches of paroled violent offenders.
But in budget testimony over the past two weeks, two of Bowser’s top aides have revealed that the mayor has taken executive action to implement parts of the council’s crime plan under other names – even including stipends to lure at-risk kids into job-training programs.
Brenda Donald, Bowser’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said she had hired five community outreach officers to try to find troubled youths and enroll them in a job-training program that provides stipends for at-risk residents to work toward full-time jobs.
“Sounds familiar,” McDuffie quipped last week during a budget hearing, asking why the mayor wasn’t just implementing the plan the council supported.
But Donald said the mayor’s job-training program differs from what the council approved.
The council had voted to replicate a controversial program started in Richmond, Calif., a working-class city northeast of San Francisco.
Under the D.C. version, the city would have hired life coaches for violent offenders with street “credibility” and paid up to 50 of its most violent offenders to work with mentors and put down their guns.
McDuffie said he couldn’t implement other aspects of the council’s law enforcement strategy because Bowser reduced funding for a second year in a row for popular crime victim assistance programs. Restoring more than $1.2 million in funding for those initiatives was his top priority, he said.
Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, said none of the cuts involved operations and would not have affected programs like Safe Shores, the district's advocacy center for abused and neglected children. Advocates, however, had testified that the cuts would be severe and urged the council to restore them.
Donahue also said the mayor stands by her version of the mentorship program.
“The mayor has always been for giving people a hand up who have a criminal record if they are ready to try to turn their lives around,” he said.
McDuffie said he’s not sure the mayor understands the program the council intended, or the emerging research that shows intense intervention with young violent criminals can have positive effects. He said the mayor’s plan could allow young offenders to fall through the cracks of the city’s social net.
“Focusing on those who are job-ready will not identify the individuals who are most likely to commit gun-related crimes, that’s my concern,” McDuffie said of the mayor’s budget. “The whole idea is to engage credible messengers, who have trustworthiness, to identify the most lethal members of our communities and begin to work with them before it is too late.”
By Thursday morning, there had been 39 homicides in the District this year — a five percent increase over 2015, when the city experienced its highest death toll in eight years. McDuffie said that if the trend continues, they may still be looking for a solution next year.
“I hope the mayor will see the value of what’s been a . . . successful crime-prevention program,” he said.