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Statehood Push: Take Over D.C. Prisons, Save Money

D.C. statehood activists wonder how the District would handle its criminal justice system if it becomes the 51st state. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Coming up with a practical plan for management of the Washington, D.C.'s courts and prisons could be a great way to sell GOP deficit hawks on making it the 51st state, advocates pitching statehood for D.C. believe.  

They'll have their chance at an upcoming Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.  

Pro-statehood activist Josh Burch says they don't yet have the answer to a "$600 million question" about how the District would take back control and payment for its criminal justice system, presently paid for by all American taxpayers and run by the federal government.  

"I think it's a really legitimate question," Burch told CQ Roll Call.  

Numerous officials are directly involved in crime and justice in D.C., with federal agencies filling the role state agencies play in other localities. The city used to operate its own criminal justice system, but many of the system's functions were brought under federal responsibility with the Revitalization Act enacted in 1997. These include public defender and pretrial services, prosecution of serious local crimes committed by adults, and probation, prison and parole, according to the nonpartisan District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute.  

Approximately 80 percent of Obama's proposed budget request for the District's fiscal 2014 budget was tied to the courts and criminal justice system, according to a Congressional Research Service report, with the vast majority going to support court operations and the District's Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.  

If the District is serious about statehood, Burch said, then this is a "practical, logistical" matter that the D.C. Council and executive branch need to address. For now, Mayor Vincent Gray and other District leaders seem to be sitting on their heels.  

"Should we be granted long overdue statehood, the District will be prepared to take on any responsibilities and mandates associated with being a state," Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy told CQ Roll Call in response to questions about whether the city had a plan for managing its court and prison system.  

Inquiries to members of the D.C. Council, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 6's Tommy Wells, who heads the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, and Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser went unanswered. Many councilmembers are traveling during the monthlong legislative break that ends this week.  

D.C.'s non-voting Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, did not have a clear solution, either. She noted that allies have made "remarkable progress" on statehood this term, with 16 senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., co-sponsoring Delaware Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper's statehood bill.  

"The District is well aware that a suitable transition will be necessary as we get closer to statehood," Norton said in an email to CQ Roll Call. "The House, of course, stands in the way." Her "New Columbia Admission Act," companion legislation to the Carper bill, has picked up a record 91 co-sponsors in the House, but all are from the Democratic minority.  

"The District has a $12 billion budget, which is larger than the budgets of twelve other states, and a $1.75 billion rainy day fund – a stronger fiscal position than most states," Norton said. "With one of the strongest economies in the country and almost 1,200 people a month moving here, the District will be prepared to make the transition once the House and the Senate vote to make the District of Columbia the 51st State.”  

Burch isn't satisfied by this wait-and-see approach, and believes now is the time for D.C. to get serious not just about seeking the full privileges and rights of statehood, but also embracing the full responsibilities of being a state. "It's about empowering ourselves," he said.  

John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center and executive director of DCPI, said every member of Congress' constituency would win if D.C. assumed control of its court and prison system. The federal tax burden would be reduced once D.C. negotiates the tax revenue to pay for its own system, perhaps in the form of a commuter tax. He said eventually localizing the system could result in further cost savings.  

Roman predicts crime rates, already on the decline, would continue to fall. Instead of shipping thousands of inmates to federal prison facilities around the country, the city could manage its own prison facility. Incarcerating people in local facilities, where their families can easily come visit, is known to reduce recidivism, studies have shown.  

"It's the right thing to do," Roman said in an interview. "There is no argument, to me, that supports the present system."  

Following a 2001 report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress established funding for an independent Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), an agency tasked with improving operations of D.C.'s unique hybrid system, evaluating multi-agency initiatives and reporting back to local and federal stakeholders.  

The District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, a locally run agency, is one of their biggest successes. According to CJCC's most recent annual report , robberies and homicides are on the decline and the number of juveniles arrested in D.C. fell by 13.5 percent in recent years.  

"There's every reason to believe we could replicate that in adults," Roman said, crediting the Metropolitan Police Department and District leaders with the success. "This is a city that has proven it can take care of business.”  

The biggest challenge for the D.C. Council and the mayor would be oversight of the court system, Roman predicted. Judges in D.C. are federal, removed from local politics, and "have shown no interest in having oversight — from anybody," he said. Oversight currently falls under Congress' jurisdiction.  

Those pushing for D.C. to take control of its prison system say the city could start from scratch and create a system perfectly tailored to its needs, but that will require serious planning of the sort the city does not seem to be engaged in.  

“I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem," Burch said. "I just think we need to be more methodical about how we address it.”  

   

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