“BEYOND BROKEN.” That characterization by then-D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier of the District’s criminal-justice system was dismissed by some as hyperbole. But the truth of her words has been borne out in excruciating detail over the past year by Post reporters who have chronicled how repeat violent offenders are released back into the community, only to commit new crimes. “Where the hell is the outrage?” asked the departing chief — a question that, more than ever in light of The Post’s revelations, demands to be addressed by the city and federal officials responsible for the system.
The failings of the mix of local and federal agencies that comprise the criminal-justice system in the District have been the subject of examination in The Post’s ongoing “Second-Chance City” series. Lax enforcement by key federal agencies and questionable judgments from the D.C. Superior Court were spotlighted in a case in which the release of an offender resulted in a woman being raped. Analysis undertaken for the first time of the city’s Youth Rehabilitation Act revealed a pattern of violent offenders returning to the community and committing more crimes. The latest installment of the series by The Post’s Aaron C. Davis showed how the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) loses track of offenders it classifies as high risk, sometimes with tragic consequences.
What becomes clear from The Post’s work is that aside from human error and questionable calls — of which there have been, unfortunately, plenty — the hybrid mix of federal and local agencies has created layers of bureaucracy that make it nearly impossible to nimbly share information and react. That the court agency, unlike supervisory counterparts in the rest of the country, does not notify law enforcement or the public about missing offenders is simply inconceivable. “With our population, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” CSOSA Director Nancy M. Ware told Mr. Davis. Imagine an official answerable at the ballot box thinking they could get away with that explanation.
Clearly, one of the things that has been lost with federal control is accountability. Witness Ms. Ware telling the District’s deputy mayor for public safety that she reports to the president of the United States, that the last congressional oversight hearing was almost four years ago, and that a Freedom of Information Act request from The Post filed in January 2016 has yet to be answered.
Defenders of the system are quick to point out that its successes have been overlooked. We don’t doubt the worth of innovative programs such as the District’s no-bail pre-trial release system, or that it is right to avoid the lock-em-up thinking that has lead to mass incarceration, especially of young black men. But in refusing to acknowledge the problems — indeed, even to collect the data needed to properly assess the system — advocates end up treating the victims of crime like so much collateral damage. Indeed, that point was tragically brought home with the Christmas week murder of a local actress, allegedly by a released offender who had failed to get his required fitting with a locator bracelet.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council have promised to do their own assessments of the system and recommend needed reforms. Whether they get the necessary cooperation from their federal partners is something that Congress needs to ensure by conducting its own oversight.
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