The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We have a plan to close the D.C. jail. It’s time to act.

The D.C. jail. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Shelley Broderick is chair of the District Task Force on Jails & Justice. Jonathan Smith and Tyrone Hall are members of the District Task Force on Jails & Justice.

Last month, complaints by White people incarcerated in the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) for their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection spurred an investigation by the U.S. Marshals Service into the conditions at the D.C. jail. Their findings led the Marshals Service to begin moving 400 people under its jurisdiction to a prison in Pennsylvania.

The deplorable conditions and abusive culture described in the report are not new. People incarcerated at the D.C. jail have been complaining about the conditions for decades, and they were well documented in reports by the D.C. auditor and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.

Despite the long-standing complaints, nothing was done. Action was taken only after White defendants complained to a federal judge. Slightly fewer than half of D.C. residents are Black, but Black people make up 86 percent of the people arrested and almost 90 percent of the people in the jail. Until now, demands to recognize their humanity were ignored.

D.C.'s lack of action cannot be blamed on the lack of a plan. Nine months ago, the District Task Force on Jails & Justice published 80 recommendations to guide D.C. to invest in community safety, lower incarceration rates, end the over-criminalization of Black people in D.C. and restore local control of our criminal legal system. The plan provides for the demolition of the D.C. jail in 2027 and for the completion of a new, smaller, secure facility in 2030 that would hold both D.C.’s pretrial and sentenced populations in a vastly different physical and social environment — a safer, healthier place that supports personal growth through innovative, promising and evidence-based practices. D.C. leaders can shorten the timeline for closing the D.C. jail and opening the new facility two years earlier if they start planning and acting now.

This plan is not the pipe dream of a fringe advocacy organization. It reflects the best thinking of a broad cross section of stakeholders. The task force members ranged from the D.C. attorney general to victims’ rights advocates to returning citizens. The plan was created through data collection, research into best practices and extensive community engagement in which task force members heard the ideas and values of thousands of D.C. residents. The task force’s plan is practical, concrete, doable and consistent with D.C. values. Importantly, it will increase public safety, in sharp contrast to the harm caused by the operation of the current jail.

D.C. leaders can and must immediately begin releasing people in a way that does not compromise community safety. The task force has a plan for that, too. D.C. has direct control over about half the people held in DOC custody — including people who are detained pretrial on local charges and people sentenced to less than a year of incarceration under D.C. law. The task force’s calculations show that we can release 443 people per day from custody by focusing on those who are facing nonviolent charges or serving nonviolent short sentences, those who have behavioral health needs and nonviolent offenses, plus expanding the use of citation release and moving people under 21 to the juvenile system. The U.S. Parole Commission can remove an additional 141 people per day from custody by releasing people being held because they are suspected of breaking a rule of their supervision — such as missing a meeting — but who have not been charged with committing a new crime.

Until a new facility can be built, D.C. must also fix the critical health and safety issues within the D.C. jail for people who cannot be released. The District should also establish independent oversight of the jail, with the authority to access the facility and issue frequent and public reports. The monitoring team should be composed of corrections experts and formerly incarcerated people, their families and advocates.

Building this new facility is only one part of a multipronged solution to D.C.’s failing justice system and perpetual silencing of Black pain. We must also make substantial community investments to reduce the number of people coming into contact with the criminal legal system in the first place. When we invest in a new facility, we must also invest in housing, behavioral health supports and services, education and more.

District leaders can no longer claim we do not have a plan. For more than two years, the task force analyzed data, researched other systems and listened to the community’s vision for the future of D.C.’s justice system. Now is the time for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to issue a request for proposals to build a new facility and for the D.C. Council to enact decarceration legislation.

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