D.C. Residents Express Apprehension about Detaining Alleged Offenders
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Less than a week after her public safety summit, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced the introduction of legislation intended to address issues in the public safety ecosystem.
The legislation, dubbed “Safer, Stronger DC,” increases penalties for unlawful gun possession and better allows judges to detain convicted violent offenders who receive new charges. It also includes victims’ families in decisions about offenders’ early prison release.
Bowser revealed Safer, Stronger DC on Monday in front of Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, just feet away from where a returning citizen stabbed a congressional staffer in March.
Those who accompanied Bowser included City Administrator Kevin Donahue, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Lindsey Appiah, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Robert J. Contee III, Natasha Dupee, executive director of the Mayor’s Office on Women’s Policy and Initiatives, and Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street.
“We are focused on public safety and places where we think there are gaps and [how] filling the gaps would make the city safer,” Bowser said. “We know that we need to make some changes that require us to be introspective and pivot toward resources to direct crime trends,” she added. “I’m introducing a proposal to move us in the right direction and build a safer, stronger D.C. It’s common sense.”
Some Residents Question Bowser’s Approach
As of Monday, D.C. has experienced a 13% increase in violent crime from the same time in the previous year. Last weekend, five shootings took place in the District within 24 hours. MPD also responded to the shooting of a 10-year-old girl in Northeast on Mother’s Day.
Bowser is scheduled to submit the Safer, Stronger DC legislation on Tuesday after the D.C. Council’s first vote on the fiscal year 2024 budget. She and Contee are also expected to appear before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability to discuss local criminal justice issues.
If passed, Safer, Stronger DC would also enhance penalties for violent crimes that target and victimize vulnerable residents, expand protections for transit and for-hire vehicle employees, eliminate the possibility of civil penalties for gun trafficking, require supervision agencies to to provide MPD with access to GPS data of those under court supervision, and include the police chief, District mayor, and deputy mayor for public safety and justice on the D.C. Sentencing Commission.
Safer, Stronger DC also makes strangulation a felony assault and expands the definition of “significant relationships” in abuse cases to include coaches.
Another important element increases the reimbursement for private security systems that District residents, businesses and nonprofits purchase for their homes and venues. Right now, Ward 8 accounts for the jurisdiction with the smallest share of the more than 11,000 residents, businesses, religious institutions and nonprofits that are participating in the program. The funds allocated via the Safer, Stronger DC legislation would fund the purchase, repair and upgrade of security equipment.
Bowser administration officials speaking on background described Safer, Stronger DC as a response to violent crimes, the proliferation of illegal guns and a negative perception about how the local courts handle criminal defendants.
At the public safety summit, Bowser, speaking about people who’ve offended while awaiting trial, expressed her desire to keep criminal defendants with a violent history detained at D.C. Jail if charged with a crime again.
Residents and advocates who tuned in virtually last week raised concerns about whether defendants would be provided a speedy trial. On Monday, the issue came up once again, this time from a passerby.
After Bowser announced Safer, Stronger DC, Northeast resident Kevin Condray questioned whether detaining alleged offenders, especially those under the age of 18, was an ideal strategy. Condray, a returning citizen and contractor, implored city officials to address young people’s educational and mental health needs.
“The defendants they’re holding are young, uneducated youth,” said Condray, 44.
“They don’t have [any] idea of what’s going on. I guarantee none of them can read at the fifth grade level,” he added. “Young people get provoked to do bad things when they go to jail. If they can learn how to read and write, they wouldn’t be focused on this. They’re doing it out of low self-esteem.”
H Street Representative Weighs In
In addition to the Safer, Stronger DC legislation, Bowser has issued a mayoral order directing deputy mayors and District agencies to submit recommendations for a holistic approach to violent crime. She hinted at further investing in violence intervention programs, revisiting school disciplinary policies, providing alternatives for families of potential crime victims, and facilitating second chance employment via the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Operations and Infrastructure.
Saleem, in his 17th year as executive director of H Street Main Street, continues to request that District officials place a cap on the number of smoke shops that are allowed to open up along the H Street corridor — a hotbed of violent crime.
There are currently 22 smoke shops operating along H Street, from the H Street bridge all the way to 13th Street.
Saleem told the Informer that advisory neighborhood commissions, in their eagerness to fill vacant buildings, often pressure the Department of Buildings to cite landlords who own vacant commercial properties.
In turn, many landlords accept vendors of smoke products as tenants to avoid paying higher property taxes on vacant buildings. Saleem said offenders gravitate toward areas with a high concentration of Initiative 71 stores to harm patrons who are likely carrying cash.
That’s why Saleem has set his sights on working with building owners on H Street to secure long-term leasing contracts. However, he said the District doesn’t allow H Street Main Street enough time to produce results.
Hours after introducing Bowser at Atlas on Monday, Saleem led an emergency meeting with dozens of business and property owners. At the meeting, participants discussed violent crime and other pressing issues with representatives of the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development, the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Services, Department of Behavioral Health, the Department of Human Services and MPD.
In espousing his support for the Safer, Stronger DC legislation, Saleem said that Bowser is taking the steps necessary to hold offenders accountable.
“When we allow young people to do simple things, like jumping over Metro [turnstiles], it sends the wrong message,” he added. “They are smart enough to listen to what legislators are doing. They understand they can get away with things. There’s not enough accountability for young people in the judiciary system and household.”