D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Monday announced city initiatives aimed at helping the people whom she and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier have linked to the District’s recent increase in violent crimes — ex-offenders.
Bowser (D) said she was launching two pilot programs that would provide “job readiness” training for inmates and former inmates. Her plan would also allow pretrial release for those facing misdemeanor charges so that those suspects might work while awaiting trial.
“These programs and forthcoming legislation will give our returning citizens the tools they need to get back on their feet as they transition back into society,” Bowser said Monday during a news conference at the D.C. jail.
But the call for pretrial releases, which came a few weeks after Bowser and Lanier said violent ex-offenders have played a major role in the city’s spiking homicide rate — and called for closer pretrial monitoring — is likely to stir contention among Bowser’s critics.
Although Bowser stressed that only working misdemeanor offenders would be eligible for pretrial release, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said that misdemeanor suspects being held at the D.C. jail are there because a court has already determined that they are a danger to society or a flight risk.
“Nobody is automatically held pretrial,” Mendelson said in a phone interview.
Law enforcement officials have also noted that those charged with misdemeanors are not always nonviolent offenders: Some assault charges qualify as misdemeanors, and some misdemeanor offenders have histories of violent crimes.
For instance, Jasper Spires, the suspect in the brutal July 4 stabbing on a Metro train, was on pretrial release for a misdemeanor charge of assaulting a police officer when he was alleged killed passenger Kevin Sutherland.
Asked Monday whether cases such as Spires would qualify for pretrial release under her plan, Bowser said, “I think you know that that’s not what we’re referring to.”
Area police have also pointed out the danger in allowing people with histories of violent crime to participate in pretrial release programs simply because their latest charge is a misdemeanor.
“We have individuals we arrest for shoplifting or breaking into a car, a nonviolent offense, but look at what they’ve been involved with in the past 10 to 15 years of their lives, and they’ve been arrested three times for armed robbery or they’ve been involved in shootings,” J. Thomas Manger, the Montgomery County police chief and head of the Major City Chiefs organization said in August at the group’s meeting in Washington. “Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of defining what a nonviolent offender is.”
Administration officials said that they could not say specifically how much money would be pumped into her new initiatives. At the news conference, Bowser initially sidestepped questions about the cost of her new programs for ex-offenders, deferring to Tom Faust, director of the District’s Department of Corrections who claimed that the initiatives were actually “saving” money, and then that any costs were “negligible.” Meanwhile, Charles Thornton, director of the Mayor’s Office for Returning Citizen Affairs said the programs would have “no cost whatsoever.”
Public defenders, law enforcement officials, and advocates for ex-offenders have long complained that the District and other American cities offer too few training and employment options to adequately prevent recidivism among the thousands of men and women who return from prison cells to city streets every year.
Bowser’s announcement on Monday appeared geared toward addressing some of that criticism, particularly after activists complained last month that her new anti-crime efforts was more focused on policing than addressing root causes of criminal behavior, like poverty and joblessness.
After announcing her initiatives Monday, Bowser and an entourage of city officials toured the D.C. jail’s education facilities, trailed by television cameras, as Bowser talked to inmates in orange jumpsuits about the education and skills training they are receiving inside the jail.
Frederick Robinson was one such inmate. He said he was jailed for 90 days this year for shoplifting, a misdemeanor offense that might have qualified for Bowser’s pretrial release plan before he was sentenced. But the 51-year-old is also a former violent offender, who said he has cycled in and out of prison for the past four decades and who was released in 2012 after serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.
“When I left, I went right back to the street,” Robinson told the mayor. There were no jobs and no opportunities when he was released in 2012, he said, adding that he had little choice but to return to criminal activity.
Now he’s getting the training and treatment he needs, he said.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.