D.C. emergency legislation passes despite opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. and fellow council member. (Photo courtesy of Katie Moum)

By Khira Moore,
AFRO Intern

Legislators struggle to find a solution as crime rates continue to rise in the District. There have been 134 reported homicides over the past seven months, a 17 percent increase from 2022. 

“This change responds to serious problem of revolving door in which too many people commit serious crimes are arrested and end up right back on the street sometimes hurting other people,” said Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Chairwoman Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2).

The D.C. Council passed the “Prioritizing Public Safety Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2023,” PR25-0341, sponsored by Pinto on July 11. This bill expands upon the laws set in Pinto’s Victims Protection Amendment Act and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Safer Stronger Amendment Act which grants more authority in determining pre-trial detention through rebuttable presumption. It gives the courts permission to arrest and detain the accused prior to a conviction based on past offenses requiring judges to reach a conclusion on whether a defendant should be released or held in jail while awaiting trial. 

Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) was the sole member to vote against Pinto’s bill on the topic of pretrial detention.

“A rebuttable presumption may not be an explicit requirement to detain the defendant, but it certainly stacks the deck in favor of detaining more Black people and Latino people who haven’t been convicted,” said George on the topic of pre-trial detention. “This bill doesn’t make us any safer, and it doesn’t advance the cause of justice. For that reason, I voted no on the emergency legislation and will continue to work to address the actual causes of crime rather than making them worse.” 

Children will now face the previously stated clause as well as adults to address the rise in youth-related criminal incidents. This legislation has raised community concerns when battling the fear of excessive incarceration and advocating for public safety.

The Thrive Under 25 Coalition released a statement that read, “There is no information about how many more District residents, who are accused of an offense and are presumed innocent, will be held in the District’s crumbling jail – the same place that the United States Marshal Service found in 2021 to be too abusive and dehumanizing to hold people with federal charges. Less than two years ago, the USMS reported that D.C. Jail staff appeared to be denying residents food and water for punitive reasons, that residents lived with a pervasive smell of sewage, and that residents had injuries that were unexplained by medical records or incident reports.”

The Pretrial Services Agency reported that 88 percent of adults released pretrial remained arrest-free over the last five years, and under 2 percent were charged with a violent offense while out in December of 2022.The Prioritizing Public Safety Emergency Declaration Resolution extends to public transit offenses and includes pick-pocketing among other actions under the umbrella of violent crime.

“The bill would lengthen sentences in multiple ways, including via enhancements for a broad array of offenses committed on public transit, on or adjacent to Department of Parks and Recreation property, or against transit workers or vulnerable individuals,” said Liz Komar as she testified before the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety on June 27. “The scope of these enhancements is extraordinarily overbroad. Riding the metro, standing at the bus stop, walking past the pool, watching basketball in the park – these enhancements capture a broad swath of day to day life, especially for young people.”

Pinto concluded by proposing that private security cameras and GPS data from pre-trial detention be used as evidence in criminal proceedings. 

“We must continue to build on the legislation that we pass today to better invest in preventive tools and interrupt cycles of violence in our city,” said Pinto.