D.C. mayoral candidates need to do better for criminal justice

This November, Mayor Muriel Bowser is facing a credible Democratic primary challenger for the first time since she was elected to lead the city. At-Large D.C. Council member Robert White threw his hat in the ring in October, announcing a campaign largely focused on criminal justice reform, restorative justice and crime prevention. 

Bowser has made a solid effort to enact policies on crime prevention and criminal justice reform in the past eight years, but her efforts have produced mixed results. But it’s also unclear if White’s current plan to tackle criminal justice reform will be much of an improvement. White has proposed comprehensive plans on numerous topics, from violence interruptions to investments in restorative justice programs. But many of his ideas include investments in existing programs under the Bowser administration that produced less-than-stellar success. And under that circumstance, it’s not clear whether the situation will improve if White took over as mayor. 

During Bowser’s second mayoral victory speech in 2018, she posed a rhetorical question about crime in the District.

“We demand prosecutors and the courts share our resolve to have safe neighborhoods. Are you with me?” she said. “Because we are going to make sure that there are jobs and opportunities for everyone, and we demand safe streets in our city. And together with all of our neighbors, mI am your mayor. We’re going to get it done together.” 

In the four years that have passed since she gave this speech, Bowser has overseen actions like granting the D.C. police authority to search a person or property with no warrant – an initiative that failed – a bill passed in the D.C. Council to give those under 25 convicted of crimes a chance to reduce their sentences and an agreement with the U.S. Marshals to address concerns with the D.C. jail. But even despite those efforts, crime remains high in the District, and criminal justice reform has not advanced much. Homicide cases have increased by more than 40 percent since 2018. Carjacking cases have also skyrocketed by 153 percent from 2019 to 2020 and 18 percent from 2020 to 2021.

But can the efficacy of solving crimes and reforming the criminal justice system be improved under a new administration? It’s still unclear. Bowser, as somebody who promised and took actions on pushing for a safer city, has not been able to change a lot. While White has proposed many ideas to expand criminal justice reform, much of his framework is too dependent on the expansion of existing programs that have already proven to be ineffective. 

White has proposed bolstering investments in violence interruption programs and mental health services and emphasized the prevention of juvenile crimes. He also lists drug use as a public emergency in his platform. Although it is good to see mayoral candidates focusing on preventing juvenile crimes by putting more effort into education, the investment in the violence interruption program needs clarification. White’s plan currently fails to emphasize both how to invest more in violence interruption and make the current pilot program more effective in combating crimes.

But White’s plan to reduce violence throughout the city does have promise. In the second part of the “Responding to Violence” portion of his platform, White details plans to expand restorative justice programs and police reform from police tactics to building more accountability from each community. 

Many of those proposals – especially by expanding restorative justice programs, which are aimed to help convicted criminals realize their crimes and discourage them from committing crimes again – can make a difference. Many existing restorative justice programs are proven to lower incarceration rates in other major cities. For example, in Brooklyn, New York, the Red Hook Community Justice Center is designed to treat the people who walk through its doors with respect, even housing GED information and housing resources on the floors above the courthouse. The result has been that the number of people being sentenced to jail dropped by 35 percent. And based on a study in a restorative justice program of victim-offender mediation across the United States, the recidivism rate for those who participated in the program, 18 percent, is lower than those who did not participate, 27 percent.

In 2021, D.C.’s incarceration rate reached 899 out of 100,000 people, the eighth highest incarceration rate throughout the United States, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative. By investing more funding and efforts in restorative justice, pushing for such a system is the right direction to eventually reduce the incarceration rates in D.C. and help convicted individuals to reenter society better.  

It’s promising to hear that the two leading candidates for D.C. mayor are prioritizing restorative justice programs in their platforms, but they both still have work to do to detail better crime prevention tactics.

Henry Deng, a sophomore majoring in criminal justice, is an opinions writer.

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