Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier raised the ire of the city’s judicial executives during a press conference on Sept. 7 when they stood in agreement that the city’s criminal justice system was failing. While the initial sentiment came in the heated rush to locate a repeat offender believed to be responsible for the death of his estranged girlfriend, residents and social workers have long complained of the system’s disrepair.
Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. (Courtesy Photos)
“The criminal justice system in this city is broken,” Lanier said at the press conference. “It is beyond broken.”
Constance Young knows well just how flawed the District’s criminal justice system has become over the last three decades. With two of her three sons serving time in penal institutions in other states, and considered habitual offenders, Young told the AFRO that her sons should have been placed in mental institutions or remanded for longer periods of time, rather than ushered through a revolving door of prison stints.
“As their mother, I can say what others will not – two of my boys have had anger and aggression issues that caused them to lash out at society in general. I did what I could to get them into some type of facility for emotional troubles, but it was their levels of violence that made criminal courts step in,” Young, a Ward 8 resident, said. “Once they were placed in juvenile halls, they quickly learned how to manipulate the system and both have spent their adult lives in and out of jail.”
The number of repeat violent offenders is difficult to quantify and track, according to Lanier, due in large part to a criminal justice system that has allowed many defendants to be released with limited or unreliable electronic monitoring. Calling the breakdown “complex,” Lanier cited a case in which the GPS tracking device of a man arrested and allowed out on home detention registered inoperable, but only after he went on a crime spree through the District and parts of Maryland that included a robbery, carjacking a vehicle, and a shooting.
“That person’s GPS went offline Aug. 12, but we didn’t know it. The agency that supervises that person didn’t tell anybody or do anything with it . . . That shouldn’t happen,” Lanier said. “And it’s happening over and over and over again. Where the hell is the outrage? People are being victimized who shouldn’t be. You can’t police the city if the rest of the justice system is not accountable.”
In the District, the courts often rely on the input of federal agencies to determine bail, detention, the filing of charges and the monitoring of suspects under court supervision. In addition, police tend to use a broad definition of offender, often referring to those charged but not found guilty of crimes.
Political scientist Wilmer J. Leon III told the AFRO that the revolving door of the D.C. criminal justice system makes it difficult for average citizens to trust fully in the courts because the very people they testify against, or who they rebuff for crime, return to the scene of the crime or neighborhood without having been punished or rehabilitated. “That inability to seek out and receive justice within Black communities lends itself to the resistance many have in getting involved in the first place,” said Leon, who documents the politics of the criminal justice system in his new book Politics: Another Perspective. “It takes a lot of courage to trust in the criminal justice system and ‘snitch’ on your neighbors or in some cases, your own kids. When that trust is broken it, in turn, breaks the system.”