Tahir Duckett is a member of Law for Black Lives-DC, a legal and policy collective.
t is better to be safe than to feel safe. The spike in violent crime in the District this summer was disturbing, and we should look to the city’s policymakers to bring the community together, listen and seek solutions that make us safer.
Sadly, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) proposed fix, the Public Safety and Criminal Code Revisions Amendment Act of 2015, amounts to little more than window dressing — or worse.
The evidence is clear. Building a safer city requires that we invest in our communities: job creation and job training that removes barriers to employment; after-school programs, particularly for youth of color; permanent access to quality, affordable housing; and resources for citizens returning from prison.
The conditions that produce violence were not created overnight and cannot be dissolved overnight. But this approach has a crucial advantage over Bowser’s plan: It would lower crime rates. Instead of using the people’s treasury to create opportunity in our city, the mayor’s approach would make the District a more punitive, unjust and draconian place to live.
Her bill would force some newly released people on probation or parole to agree to random searches of their homes at any time for any reason or no reason. It would allow police to obtain GPS tracking data on these people at any time for any reason or no reason. It would encourage property owners to install surveillance cameras to record footage that the police could review at any time for any reason or no reason.
This expansion of police power is paired with an authorization of lengthier sentences for people convicted of aggravated assault on a police officer. The definition of assault on a police officer is broad and can include resisting arrest and impeding or interfering with a police officer. Studies show the statute has been used to prosecute people whose only crime was being frustrated for being unjustifiably stopped by police. Nearly two-thirds of those arrested for assaulting a police officer were not charged with any other crime; 90 percent of them were black. The bill doesn’t address any of these concerns.
The bill threatens to flood the D.C. jail with potentially innocent people. For a laundry list of crimes, judges would have to presume that detention pretrial is necessary, instead of examining an individual’s particular circumstances. Judges already have the power to hold dangerous people. We don’t need an additional excuse to lock up even more young people of color.
None of these measures would have prevented a single homicide this summer. But they would disproportionately land on people of color. In the District, 94 percent of citizens under court supervision are black. The mayor’s bill would only deepen the racial inequity built into our justice system.
It’s time to learn the lessons of the failed “tough on crime” experiments of the 1980s and 1990s. The longer sentences and shrinking privacy protections that have been the hallmark of the war on drugs didn’t make us any safer. But those laws and policies did produce a prison system bursting at the seams with young black and brown men (and, increasingly, women), the vast majority of whom were pressured to plead guilty to nonviolent drug offenses in an effort to avoid lengthy jail time. Those laws and policies produced an effective war between police departments and the communities they were sworn to protect. Those laws and policies produced millions of black and brown citizens with felony convictions incapable of finding decent jobs, housing or economic independence.
These are the results we get when politicians exploit a community’s fear to justify shortsighted, feel-good remedies that over police and under serve the community. Politicians are rejecting the ineffective “tough on crime” approaches that gave the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Bowser and the D.C. Council should scrap the Public Safety and Criminal Code Revisions Amendment Act of 2015. Then, we can get to work on more challenging and rewarding measures to end the poverty-to-prison pipeline and create a safer city.