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March 26, 2020

Muriel Bowser, Mayor
Kevin Donahue, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice
Phil Mendelson, Chairman, D.C. Council Charles Allen, Councilmember, D.C. Council, Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety
Peter Newsham, Chief, Metropolitan Police Department
Robert Morin, Chief Judge, D.C. Superior Court
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
Karl Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia
Quincy Booth, Director, Department of Corrections
Timothy Shea, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia
LaQuandra Nesbitt, Director, Department of Health
Patricia Cushwa, Chairperson, United States Parole Commission
Michael Carvajal, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons

Thank you for the important steps many of you have already taken to slow the spread of the deadly and highly transmissible novel coronavirus (COVID-19). We recognize the challenges and appreciate the legislative and policy initiatives to reduce the number of people detained by law enforcement and held in custody and to address conditions of confinement.

However, the unprecedented crisis of this global pandemic—along with the now-confirmed case of a 20-year-old held at the D.C. jail—calls for additional urgent action. We write today with specific policy recommendations and to urge further actions to protect all individuals impacted by the criminal legal system during the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot spare any measure that will save lives and reduce the burden on our health care system. Our full list of detailed recommendations is attached, and include:

  • Decreasing arrests: The Metropolitan Police Department has a key role to play by shifting its enforcement activities to minimize risks to both community members and officers. While custodial arrests have decreased since MPD’s modification of the citation release criteria on March 17, 2020, they must be decreased further to adequately reduce entry into the system. Balancing the public safety justifications for enforcement and arrest against the overwhelming public health concerns raised by COVID-19, MPD must take steps to expand criteria for citation and release, expedite papering decisions, and only arrest individuals in situations that present a continued and serious risk to public safety.
  • Decreasing the populations of the D.C. Jail and Bureau of Prisons facilities: Our criminal legal institutions are not equipped to keep their populations and staff safe during this crisis. Facilities are unhygienic, medical care systems are understaffed and unequipped, and the social distancing mandated by public health experts is impossible in these settings. Not only are they unsafe, these facilities serve as accelerators for the spread of viruses and illness both inside the facilities and into the community via staff. It is therefore imperative that their populations be decreased immediately and significantly. This should be accomplished by:
     
    1. Reducing the population of those held in pretrial detention who do not pose significant risk to public safety;
    2. Creating a presumption of release for those who are age 60 or older or have a pre-existing medical condition or other factor identified as creating a risk for severe COVID-19 complications;
    3. Releasing those who are serving misdemeanor sentences or who are held pretrial on misdemeanors;
    4. Enacting legislation to allow individuals serving D.C. Code sentences to request compassionate release from their sentencing judge and expanding criteria for compassionate release to include “vulnerability to COVID-19”;
    5. Transferring individuals out of halfway houses and into home confinement;
    6. Suspending the issuance of any new United States Parole Commission warrants and holding in abeyance any pending warrants except for those that relate to a specific threat to public safety;
    7. Speeding up the processing of motions and release of vulnerable individuals by Superior Court judges.
       
  • Minimizing health risks inside facilities: The Department of Corrections, Bureau of Prisons, and D.C. Courts must all work closely with the D.C. Department of Health to create comprehensive plans to reduce the risk of virus transmission in the D.C. Jail, in halfway houses, and in the courts. This includes ensuring that all staff and detained individuals have consistent and proper access to personal protective equipment, hygiene, and sanitation supplies. In addition, detailed coordinated plans with area hospitals and service providers are needed to ensure safe placements and access to necessary services in the community for those who are released but require isolation, quarantine, or medical care as a result of exposure or increased vulnerability to COVID-19, according to CDC guidelines.
  • Providing reentry support for those released: As individuals are released into the community, they should be connected with the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs for assistance with housing, benefits, employment, and mental health services.  In addition, policies should be implemented to allow and encourage those with families and loved ones who can house them to return directly to their families.  The District also should consider renting space to provide housing for returning citizens who otherwise would be homeless.

Many of the reforms suggested in the attached recommendations have already been implemented in jurisdictions around the country.1 These reforms are also consistent with those supported by more than 30 district attorneys, (including Attorney General Karl Racine and three from counties in Northern Virginia), who signed a letter urging immediate action to stop the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons.2 They are also consistent with the recommendations of public health experts.3

We request an immediate meeting to discuss these proposals.  For any questions relating to this letter and to schedule a meeting, please reach out to Emily Gunston, Deputy Legal Director at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Sincerely,

  • ACLU of the District of Columbia
  • Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth
  • Campaign for Youth Justice
  • Children's Law Center
  • Code Pink for Peace
  • Community Mediation DC
  • John Copacino, Director, Criminal Justice Clinic, Co-Director, E. Barrett Prettyman Fellowship Program, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
  • DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project
  • Defender Impact Initiative
  • Drug Policy Alliance
  • Families Against Mandatory Minimums
  • Eduardo R. Ferrer, Visiting Professor, Georgetown Juvenile Justice Clinic, Policy Director, Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative
  • Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop
  • Interfaith Action for Human Rights
  • Vida Johnson, Deputy Director, Criminal Justice Clinic, Associate Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
  • Justice Policy Institute
  • Isa Mirza, o-chair, DC Reentry Task Force

  • Open City Advocates

  • Positive Force DC

  • Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia
  • Louis Sawyer Jr., Co-chair, DC Reentry Task Force
  • School Justice Project
  • Second Look Project
  • The Sentencing Project
  • Abbe Smith Director, Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, Co-Director, E. Barrett Prettyman Fellowship Program
  • Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
  • Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
  • We Are Family Senior Outreach Network


[1] Consistent with our recommendations, we have provided a list of jurisdictions and the measures they have implemented in the Appendix.
[2] The letter is available at: https://fairandjustprosecution.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Coronavirus-Sign-On-Letter.pdf
[3] Rich, J., Allen S., and Nimoh, M. (March 17, 2020). “We must release prisoners to lessen the spread of coronavirus.” Washington Post. Online. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/17/we-must-release-prisoners-lessen-spread-coronavirus/