Returning to society after a stint behind bars can be difficult, but those coming back to the District after doing time face particularly long odds, according to a report released Monday.
The report by the Council for Court Excellence, a nonprofit that advocates for improvements to the city’s criminal justice system, indicates that 1 in 22 adults in the District are “under some form of correctional control,” including jail or probation. Prisoners are often housed in federal facilities as far away as the West Coast, the report notes, and most of the struggles resulting from a criminal record are borne by the city’s black residents.
“D.C.’s returning citizens face a variety of challenges that returning citizens elsewhere simply do not confront,” the report says, noting the city’s status as a federal district rather than a state. “It does not have to be this way.”
The report, titled “Beyond Second Chances” and running more than 100 pages long, paints a bleak picture of those with criminal records searching for housing and work in an expensive city where many jobs require a college education.
Kevin Donahue, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said in a statement that the District “continues to identify opportunities to improve our supports for our inmate population and returning citizens in an effort to reduce recidivism,” particularly as the city will soon choose a new Department of Corrections director.
“Our focus will be on ensuring quality programming and support is provided to inmates to make their release and reentry a positive and successful experience,” he said.
Some recommendations in the report are specific, such as urging the Federal Bureau of Prisons to establish an ombudsman position focused on D.C. correctional issues. It also suggests that halfway houses stop charging residents 25 percent of their income for subsistence fees.
Its authors found that more than 1 in 5 employed returning citizens lack stable housing when they return to the community, and those who were unemployed were even more likely to stay in homeless shelters or on the street.
Correctional facilities should have returning citizens apply for housing up to 90 days before release, according to the report, which also urges the D.C. Council to approve legislation preventing landlords from discriminating against those with criminal records.
The District’s “ban the box” law, which prevents employers from screening out job applicants based on criminal convictions, isn’t sufficient, the report says.
“In D.C., you can ‘Ban the Box,’ but you can’t ban Google,” said returning citizen Taylar Nuevelle, according to the report.
The report praises nonprofits that offer job training, such as D.C. Central Kitchen, but says more training opportunities are needed. It also takes aim at Hope Village in Southeast Washington, a halfway house run by a private company long criticized for security problems and failing to help residents secure employment, as a 2013 report by a District agency noted.
“They just don’t care about us — us coming home, trying to reacclimate ourselves into society,” said Robert Davis, 40, who recently spent time at Hope Village after serving 21 years on a murder charge.
The report suggests that the Bureau of Prisons shouldn’t renew its contracts with Hope Village to house D.C. offenders, the last of which expire next year. Hope Village didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The report also says the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, which was criticized last year in an audit by the D.C. inspector general, needs more funding and staff to coordinate services for ex-offenders.
Brian Ferguson, who was appointed director of the office in September, reviewed the report before its release and praised its findings.
“I value the research, data and recommendations that CCE put forward because they share MORCA’s goal of creating the best possible environment for returning citizens in the District,” Ferguson said in a statement.
Other recommendations include ensuring inmates have health and mental health coverage when released and that women, juveniles and LGBTQ inmates get appropriate services.
“The report reveals that the District of Columbia sets up our returning citizens to fail,” Emily MacLeod, a legal fellow at D.C. Prisoners’ Project, said in a statement. “It is important that the stories highlighted in the report motivate us to ensure that every returning citizen has a meaningful opportunity for a second chance.”
As President Obama’s attempts to address mass incarceration give way to uncertain policies under President-elect Donald Trump, the report says the District could become “a place where returning citizens can move beyond second chances and fulfill their full potential.”
“This is a moment when we can really rethink how people are returning from prison and jail,” said Emily Tatro, a CCE policy analyst.