The expansion of pretrial detention will be deeply harmful to communities, draining resources and destabilizing lives, and may in the long-run actually increase crime. Even a short-term incarceration pretrial can lead to loss of employment, housing, and can strain community ties, elements crucial for social stability and reintegration once people return home from incarceration. Multiple recent studies show that pretrial incarceration actually increases the likelihood of future arrest. Moreover, confining more individuals in a D.C. jail in crisis, with a documented history of brutal conditions and facing a lawsuit over inadequate medical care, is a misguided response that further undermines the safety of D.C. residents.
History shows us that responses rooted in punishment rarely create or sustain long-term public safety and thriving communities. In the 80’s and 90’s, fueled by similar rhetoric about increases in crime, D.C. embarked on a mass incarceration experiment with harsh mandatory minimums for drug-related and serious offenses. Instead of curbing the violence, these policies resulted in an explosion of the jail and prison population, leading D.C. to have one of the highest homicide and incarceration rates in the country. The consequences of these policies have been borne almost exclusively by the District’s Black communities, and still contribute to ongoing social challenges and injustice.
Forty years on, we now have ample evidence showing that incarceration is one of the least effective and most expensive approaches to public safety. Research shows that tougher penalties and harsher sentences do not deter crime. And when it comes to curbing gun violence, prevention is far more powerful than punishment.
Earlier this year, residents came together in a series of roundtables to share their personal experiences with gun violence and offer potential solutions. Their frustration and grief were palpable as they criticized the lack of a clear strategy by the government and poor coordination between agencies. Residents want more community-based interventions, better services along with increased mental health resources, and further support for grassroots organizations effectively working on violence prevention. The call was clear: D.C. needs an approach that prioritizes investment in community health and wellness, not punishment and incarceration.