ICYMI: Overwhelming Community Opposition to D.C. Bill That Would Worsen Mass Incarceration

We wanted to make sure you’d seen highlights from the D.C. Council’s Judiciary & Public Safety Hearing on the “Safer Stronger Amendment Act of 2023” (SSDC), where a broad range of community members, youth and justice advocates, survivors of crime, and elected leaders voiced extremely strong opposition to the bill on the basis that it would increase mass incarceration, worsen racial disparities, and hurt kids and families in D.C., all without advancing public safety.

Three types of policies in particular would cause the most harm to individuals and families: (1) increasing pretrial detention for youth and adults; (2) increasing penalties for some offenses; and (3) significantly rolling back “Second Look,” the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA).

The overwhelming majority of the more than 100 witnesses strongly opposed the legislation; a small sample of their arguments against this harmful bill are below:

Elected Leaders Oppose SSDC

“My views on this bill are informed in part by hundreds of conversations I’ve had with hundreds of D.C. residents in every ward and every neighborhood of our city… they are not interested in political posturing. Nobody opposes the goal of reducing violent crime; in my view, this bill will do little to accomplish this shared goal… several provisions in this bill are problematic. They default back to the flawed assumption that easier and lengthier incarceration – both pretrial and after adjudication – improve public safety. In doing so, the provisions fail to heed the painful lessons of our history; namely, that unnecessary and unnecessarily lengthy incarceration does not make us safer. It undermines public safety, devastates people and communities, and exacerbates racial inequality.” – Brian Schwalb, D.C. Attorney General 

“[We] need to approach this justice reform emphasizing rehabilitation and community-based preventative measures over extended punitive actions… my life is deeply intertwined with the narrative around our city’s ongoing battle around crime, poverty, and systematic justice… At 19, I found myself on the receiving end of a wrongful conviction and a harsh sentence that [meant] I would seemingly spend… years within the confines of the criminal justice system. Consequently, I can attest first hand to the rippling effect  these policies have, not only on those directly involved, but on our community as a whole.” – Leonard Bishop, ANC Commissioner 

“We need to act with focus and determination to legislate boldly based on the evidence to actually follow through on the DC based programs that are designed to save lives and build lasting peace in our neighborhood communities. Unfortunately, some of the provisions before us in the bill today seemed designed to generate so-called ‘tough-on-crime’ headlines, rather than create good outcomes for D.C. residents who are desperately calling for our community to be safe. This bill almost exclusively focuses on increasing detention and incarceration for D.C. residents…We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and some of the longest criminal sentences on the books already. Not only does over incarceration not work, but it also has contributed to many of the public issues we are facing now across our communities.” – Councilmember Janeese Lewis George

“No amount of police alone or longer sentences will prevent crime or violent crime…our communities also need job opportunities, better education, stable housing, healthcare access, substance abuse concealing, and services for both youth and adults. We need prevention and intervention programs to help divert people from making a choice that may change their life and the lives of others forever… The polices of our past cannot keep coming to the forefront of our public safety conversation. We have decades of research showing that longer sentences do not deter general or specific based crimes.” – Councilmember Brianne Nadeau 

Organizations Supporting Victims and Survivors and Survivors of Crime Opposing SSDC

“I am a survivor of violent crime. I have had the privilege of consulting on over 100 IRAA and Second Look; I specialize in reentry planning and community support… Those men and women who have been released… have promised that if they came home they will give back to our community, and they have. I believe now more than ever that the men and women who have returned to our community have overwhelmingly created a healthier DC. Voters and loving parents and grandparents – [IRAA recipients] committed to creating peace in our D.C. community. No one should doubt that they are strengthening our community.” – Betsy Biben, Public Witness, Survivor

“This bill has nothing to do with crime or violence prevention; It instead relies on an outdated and false premise that locking people up makes us safer. If incarceration really made us safe, the U.S. would be the safest country in the world, and I think we can all agree that it is… we all know that addressing root causes is what reduces violence, not detention. Instead of backsliding into the past, let’s make the choice to move forward by investing in housing, healthcare, and education – things that actually keep us safer… it is clear that this bill is not grounded in data or facts, but written to achieve a specific goal: jail as many children as possible… as a survivor, this [bill] does not make me feel any safer. All it does is make it easier for the police to surveil and target Black and brown folks.” – Dr. Madhwi Venkatraman, Public Witness, Survivor

“Mandatory minimums [provisions in SSDC] will disproportionately affect Black women who are victims of domestic violence.” – Micaela Deming, DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence

More Than a Dozen Residents Returning Home Note Extreme Harms of Proposed “Second Look” Roll Back

“I firmly believe the passing of IRAA is instrumental in creating a safer, healthier, and more inclusive D.C. I am a living example of what second chances look like… I am a peer supporter for my fellow IRAA recipients coming home from jail and prison. There are so many still incarcerated who have yet to be given the opportunity to contribute their talents and gifts to transform our neighborhoods. They’re needed here so that they can be on the frontlines of creating community-driven solutions that will build a truly safer and stronger D.C.” – Shannon Battle, IRAA Recipient

“The more I studied laws in D.C., the more I lost hope that I would ever be able to come home to family again, and show the community how I changed. In 2021, when the DC Council amended IRAA to include people under the age of 25, I felt hopeful for the first time in a very long time. Having hope that you might be free again is very helpful to an incarcerated person; hope is what pushes you to do the right thing. Before IRAA, I never believed that lawmakers would recognize we were children, too… the men that have come home under IRAA are different than they were when they were children, and are contributing to their communities and their families. We are all worthy of redemption and a second chance.” – Randall McNeil, Arnold Ventures, IRAA Recipient

“Ain’t no data that shows IRAA has anything to do with the crime that’s elevated in DC today. But you do have data that shows that IRAA has been helping the community out, helping the youth out, giving back to the community.” – David Bailey, IRAA Recipient

D.C. Community Organizations Testify Against Policies That Would Increase Incarceration

“Most of us interested in addressing root causes of violent behavior and harm in our community would agree that the most powerful tools we have to do so are to combat poverty, and provide all young people with an excellent and well-rounded education that expands their sense of the possible. Yet even at the earliest ages, we’ve seen the behavior of our children – many of whom are suffering adverse childhood experiences and undergoing enormous stress in their lives outside of school – assigned to malicious intention or even criminalized…. For this Council to prioritize the expansion of pretrial detention, which will remove young people from school… over positive diversion and re engagement for youth, is hypocritical and dangerous.” – Scott Goldstein, EmpowerED

“Overall, we feel that the bill’s approach to public safety fails to address the root causes of crime, which are more often tied to poverty, inequities in opportunity, and lack of societal support, rather than low sentences or weak penalties… many residents identified wanting more investments in trauma healing, less in carceral responses, and to feel safe…  [SSDC] continues to approach community violence with a one-size-fits-all approach, instead of striving for policies that make a wider variety of residents feel safe in the District.” – Naida Henao, Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. 

“The issues around youth crime and gun violence are not new issues as those Washingtonians on the council know. We’ve been dealing with these issues for almost four decades. There have been many laws written about this over 4 decades and here we are today with another one. Judging from history and my lived experience as someone who has been directly impacted by gun violence, I believe the Safer Stronger legislation will not make us safer or stronger in the immediate or long term…We need services and support, not detention.” – Reverend Ryane Nickens, TraRon Center, WIN 

Youth and Criminal Justice Advocacy Organizations Testify How Data Shows Increasing Mass Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer

“It’s a step in the wrong direction for the District, and will not improve public safety. Decades of research proves longer sentences and increasing incarceration does meet our shared goals of making our community safer. Passing this bill will actually undermine efforts to address residents’ concerns about community safety.” – Dawit Getachew, FWD.us 

“Two years after release [from 24 years of incarceration], I was totally exonerated… IRAA is meticulously and thoughtfully written… there’s no correlation between IRAA and crime today.” – Troy Burner, Justice Policy Institute, IRAA Recipient

“All Washingtonians deserve safety. This bill would not achieve that. We urge [the D.C. Council] to reject this bill and return to evidence-based policymaking.” – Rebecca Turner, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

“Mandatory minimums don’t work. Crime is real, it is serious, it is harmful – the last thing the District should be doing is adopting solutions that… don’t actually make people safer.” – Molly Gill, FAMM

“This legislation repeats the same failed tough-on-crime approach that led to racially disparate mass incarceration and hasn’t addressed our current challenges.” – Monica Hopkins, ACLU of the District of Columbia 

“I’m here in my personal capacity, [but] I have served for more than 4 years as the chair of the Mayor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, and for more than 20 years worked with juvenile justice system partners and youth in the system both here and across the country… this is a performative, political, and paternalistic bill, and the mayor’s office does not have evidence for increasing detention for youth. There are in fact dozens of studies that show that detention by itself increases the risk that youth will reoffend, and reoffend more seriously when released. Caging youth makes us less safe.” – Laura Furr, Public Witness, Chair of Mayor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group

SSDC “would not make D.C. safer or stronger. It focuses on increasing penalties for people convicted of crimes, but the National Institute of Justice itself makes clear that increasing the severity of punishment does very little to deter crime… this bill does not invest in accountability beyond prison, which survivors of crime prefer 3 to 1… this bill doubles down on ‘tough on crime’ policies which have led to the mass incarceration of Black people.” – Emily Tatro, DC Justice Lab

Read more:

1) More Incarceration in the District of Columbia Will Not Increase Public Safety

2) More than 40 National and Local Organizations Call on D.C. Leaders to Oppose Safer Stronger D.C. Proposal that will Worsen Mass Incarceration Without Improving Public Safety

Get in touch with us:

Tell the world; share this article via...