Good afternoon Chairman McDuffie and Alexander and Councilmembers. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. DCLY is an organization whose mission is to advocate for continued positive youth justice reform in the District. Together with our allies who include juvenile justice advocates, defense attorneys, post-adjudication counsel, education attorneys and community-based service providers we are working to make the District’s juvenile justice system the smallest and best system. By the “smallest” I mean that the system should be reserved for only those young people for whom it is absolutely necessary and the “best” means that we want our young people to touch the system once and that is it—that they will have positive outcomes after coming into contact with the system.
I am here today to talk about the multiple bills that are seeking to address issues of crime, violence, and policing and prosecution in the District. DCLY is an organization focused on youth justice advocacy and we believe that preventive solutions to crime are most effective at making our communities safer and that these solutions must engage, empower, and invest in our communities. Also, we believe that a public health, multi-tiered response to crime works for young people, young adults, and adults. Today I will talk about our city’s approach to issues of crime and violence and address the various proposed legislation under consideration here today.
Public Health Strategy for Violence Prevention
Councilmembers, we are here today because the District is experiencing an increase in certain violent crimes and you are rightly trying to figure out the most effective ways to address this issue. That being said, you must know that community violence is a public health issue. Therefore, the most effective approach to stemming violence, reducing crime, and making our communities safer is one that employs multi-tiered, public health based strategies; strategies that invest in evidenced-based, front-end programs and address the underlying factors that contribute to crime and violence. Councilmember McDuffie, the legislation you proposed is a step in the right direction and we support this legislation. The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act takes a public health approach to community violence and provides for front-end prevention rather than back-end policing. This legislation, which would implement a violence prevention model based on Richmond, CA, incorporates evidence-based therapy but more importantly, it would target identified high-risk individuals rather than whole communities or a randomly selected group of people such as all returning citizens. Additionally, this Act is the only one under consideration today that has a trauma component and that addresses the needs of current and likely victims of violence. We are pleased to see that this bill would embed social workers in hospital emergency rooms to offer counseling, mediation, and trauma-based care and would place mental health workers in police districts to improve interactions with the community and provide connections to human services. This bill’s approach—helping current and potential victims while also funding community-based, front-end violence prevention—can reduce violence and achieve the necessary community buy-in to continue to prevent crime in our communities.
Community Investment vs. Increased Community Policing
A successful approach to fighting violence also requires community investment and long-term solutions that do not rely primarily on increased policing, prosecution, and incarceration. Investing in additional policing, increasing police powers, and increasing penalties may make some feel safe in the short-term, however these actions will never have the long-term public safety results that community investment and prevention-oriented policies will have. However, the Mayor’s proposal does just that—it presents only back end solutions that increase policing of District communities. The reactive policies outlined in the Mayor’s proposal are not effective at reducing crime or recidivism. However, they will prove to be incredibly effective at decimating District communities, scapegoating individuals under court supervision, and eroding community support for law enforcement. This will not make us safer.
Councilmember McDuffie, you’ve held a number of hearings and roundtables since you assumed the leadership of this Committee. In that time, you’ve no doubt heard community concerns from all over the city. I’m sure that you’ve heard, as we have, that what people need are connections to real employment, safe neighborhoods and schools, and positive relationships between the police and the community. The Mayor’s proposal does not meet those needs. It will instead make it more difficult for those under court supervision to find housing, it will subject returning citizens to detention without due process, and will further shield the police from accountability when they use force or overstep their lawful authority. This is not a proposal that will make our city safer.
There is also a fairness issue that this Council must examine when considering the proposals in front of these Committees. The Mayor’s proposal will have a disparate racial impact on black communities in the District. At a time when the District is becoming more fractured by income inequality, gentrification, and adversarial police-community interactions, the Mayor’s proposal will further deepen these divides.
It is important that this Council does not pass the Mayor’s legislation. This measure, which is about policing rather than addressing root causes or using public health-based solutions to violence prevention sends the message that we can arrest our way out of issues of crime and violence. This approach has not worked here in the District or anywhere else in the country.
Councilmembers, our government must avoid reactionary, knee-jerk responses, which can make communities less safe and contribute to harmful interactions between police and the community. Rather, this Council should approach violence as a public health issue and meaningfully invest in a coordinated strategy to proactively address issue such as lack of opportunities, under-resourced neighborhoods, and childhood trauma, which are the root causes of violence in our communities.
Included in my testimony is a document that states DCLY’s position on a few of the proposals considered here today. In short, we support the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act for the reasons I stated earlier in my testimony. Additionally, we support in its entirety, the Police and Criminal Discovery Reform Act introduced by Councilmembers Cheh, Bonds, and Mendelson. This Act will help ensure that innocent people do not get convicted as a result of discovery violations or faulty eyewitness ID testimony and will positively reform the current assault on a police officer statute. DCLY does not support the Mayor’s Public Safety and Criminal Code Revisions Amendment Act.
21-360 “Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act of 2015”
DCLY supports the bill in its entirety. The Councilmember’s proposals appropriately combat violence with a public health agenda; however, the legislation could go even further – ending violence requires interventions from birth all the way through early adulthood to proactively address the root causes of violence in our community, such as lack of opportunities, under-resourced neighborhoods, and childhood trauma. The District should employ evidence-based primary interventions that support parents and families from before childbirth, and throughout childhood and adolescence.
21-189 “Police and Criminal Discovery Reform Amendment Act of 2105”
DCLY supports the bill in its entirety. Title I on Criminal Discovery Expansion gives defense counsel evidence earlier on, which will allow for more fair outcomes. Title II, Subtitle A, changes the definition of “law enforcement” in such a way that appropriately removes many potential APO victims. Additionally, the bill’s revised APO statute breaks apart “assault” from “intentionally resisting arrest,” which appropriately distinguishes between two different offenses. Title II, Subtitle C, provide for eyewitness identification reforms necessary to reduce the number of inaccurate identifications, which often lead to wrongful convictions.
21-357 “Public Safety and Criminal Code Revisions Amendment Act of 2015”
DCLY opposes the following pieces of the Mayor’s proposed legislation, which we find incredibly concerning:
- Consent searches for certain offenders on parole, probation, under supervised release (Title I): This will increase negative interactions between community and law enforcement and may also deter residents from taking in recently released individuals. Additionally, the Mayor’s bill is not based on any research as to how this strategy will reduce violence in our community.
- Swift and Certain Sanctions to Prevent Recidivism (Title II): Relies heavily on incarceration as a solution without a standard for finding a violation and without evidence that such a strategy would benefit public safety.
- Enhanced Penalties for Public Transit Offenses (Title III): Relies too heavily on prosecution and incarceration as a solution. Additionally, sentencing enhancements have not shown to have a deterrent effect.
- Law enforcement access to detection device data (Title V): This law will likely only impact DYRS because the Council does not have the authority to require CSOSA and other federal agencies to provide this information. Accordingly, this law will likely fall only on youth in the District.
- “Assault on a Law Enforcement Officer and Resisting Arrest Modernization” (Title IX) includes definitions of both significant bodily injury and serious bodily injury, which expand the scope of the definitions adopted by the DC Court of Appeal precedent. The proposed definitions also transform the elements of significant and serious bodily injury from an objective standard to a subjective standard of pain. The proposed definitions will also affect other assault charges, beyond APO.
DCLY takes no position on the other portions of the Mayor’s proposed legislation.