Amid concerns over rising violent crime rates in the District, lawmakers are working to pass a series of “tough-on-crime" bills. Two examples of this legislation are Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Safer Stronger Amendment Act and Councilmember Brooke Pinto’s Prioritizing Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act. Bowser’s bill is awaiting discussion in the fall, whereas Pinto’s act already went into effect as emergency legislation in July. Among other things, both efforts seek to increase pretrial detention in the District. This is a concern for social justice organizations across DC, including JPAP. The new legislation, these groups warn, will likely worsen mass incarceration in the District, inordinately harm Black communities, and, especially, Black Americans with psychiatric disabilities.

            Prior to this legislation, pre-trial detention in the District only occurred in specific circumstances. For example, the DC Code called for the pre-trial detention of individuals charged with violent crimes while armed. Bowser and Pinto’s efforts expand these circumstances. Bowser's legislation would include all individuals charged with violent crimes who have previous violent crime convictions. Pinto’s legislation is broader in scope and extends pretrial detention to all individuals charged with violent crimes.

             Both pieces of legislation also deal with pre-trial detention for youth. Bowser’s legislation would expand pre-trial detention to all youth, armed or unarmed, charged with violent crimes. This is one of the most controversial parts of the Mayor’s bill. Pinto’s legislation, on the other hand, is less expansive. The act only extends pretrial detention to youth charged with specific violent crimes, including murder, carjacking, and sexual assault. 

            DC residents have resisted both efforts. In July, Bowser’s bill underwent a public hearing at the DC Council. Over 160 Washingtonians signed up to speak, many voicing concerns over the repercussion that the legislation would have on Black communities. Rondell Jordan, for example, a staff attorney at Open City Advocates, said: “The last time we got tough on crime, we sent tens of thousands of Black Washingtonians to prison, fearful that we had raised a generation of superpredators. DC’s youth are not superpredators. There is nothing especially bad or scary about them.”

            The racial inequalities that already define DC’s legal system back these concerns. In 2022, Black Washingtonians were 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than white Washingtonians. People with mental health issues are also especially vulnerable to criminalization. One study shows that, for the same offenses, people with mental health issues are more likely to be arrested than individuals without mental health issues. Other studies show that people with mental health issues are more likely to face re-arrest, spend more time incarcerated, and have their parole revoked than their counterparts without mental illness. These intersecting phenomena suggest that Black Washingtonians and Washingtonians with mental health issues, who largely make up JPAP’s client base, will be most vulnerable to Pinto’s and Bowser’s harsher sentencing policies.

            Further, evidence shows that pretrial detention is an ineffective and expensive public safety measure. One 2022 study found that pretrial detention does not increase individuals’ likelihood of appearing in court. Instead, this practice is correlated with higher rearrest rates and a higher likelihood of receiving a jail or prison sentence. Nonetheless, local governments in the US spend approximately $13.6 billion on pretrial detention each year.

           DC already has a detention rate above the national average at 899 out of 100,000 people compared to the nationwide rate of 664 out of 100,000 people. In contrast, New York City, which has a significantly larger population and population density than DC, has a detention rate of 347 out of 100,000.  As social justice advocates stated in a joint letter to Bowser and the DC Council, “we cannot incarcerate our way to public safety.” The overwhelming majority of Washingtonians, including 87% of Black DC residents, support reducing incarceration in the District. Increased pretrial detention is not what the District wants or needs.

          Bowser’s legislation will likely be discussed by lawmakers in the fall. Pinto’s legislation, on the other hand, will expire in October. On September 18th, Pinto introduced her Secure DC Plan, which will attempt to move the Prioritizing Public Safety Emergency Amendment act in permanent legislation. 


Councilmember Pinto speaking at a news conference. Mayor bowser and two other individuals stand behind her.

Source: Washington Post. Image description: Councilmember Pinto and Mayor Bowser at a news conference. Pinto, a white woman with long, brown hair, is wearing a white suit and speaking into a microphone. Behind her, stands Bowser, a brown-skinned Black woman with brown hair wearing a beige suit. Two other individuals stand next to them.


Published: October 2, 2023