Almost half of the elderly women in Japan are living in poverty and depend on prison as a means of care, with many purposely committing crimes in hopes of getting caught and jailed.
Edwina Dorch, a professor of crime, justice and securities at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), presses her students to picture such a situation befalling the nation’s capital.
“That’s an unusual theory to view criminality, [to say] that because there is no housing or jobs, people turn to crime,” she said.
But for Dorch, who leads a series of research and methodology classes for seniors in UDC’s criminal justice department, taking unique approaches to addressing the District’s criminal-justice problems is right up her alley.
Each year, as a final undergraduate project, Dorch’s students collectively formulate solutions to the city’s high arrest rates, crime trends and recidivism based on their class research. Each student completes an individual study of a single city agency to assess its current and best practices, then they unite their research into one presentation with one solution.
For the past four years, the group has presented their senior projects to city officials. This year, a group of 10 students proposed to D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) that city programs centered around education, housing and employment set aside 10 percent of their slots to the re-entry population to reduce recidivism and dollars spent on jailing residents.
Armed with charts and statistics, the students presented and defended their plan, pointing out that re-entering citizens make up nearly 10 percent of the city’s population and a great portion of the need for housing, education and employment programs. They argued that 9,000 returning citizens must get in line for employment opportunities behind the city’s 21,000 other unemployed residents, as well as jockey for spots in the city’s GED program, which is capped at 8,000 slots. Additionally, the returning citizens join countless numbers of residents looking for affordable housing.
The students argued the returning citizens’ criminal past would not make them a first choice for most opportunities in the city. They called for the 10 percent set aside in the city’s apprenticeship program, UDC’s job-training and career pathway program, the city’s GED program and housing.
“Each year for the past four years, we have presented, and [city officials] have ignored us,” Dorch said. “And sometimes we’ve gone out and done it ourselves.”
In 2016, the class suggested that the city’s criminal-justice program incorporate the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program developed by an arm of the U.S. Justice Department that is used by 27 states. The program helps states fund data studies of arrests and factors that drive rates of incarceration and look at diversion programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison. When the state determines how much money can be saved using the methods, the federal government matches the amount in grants to the state.
The class made the presentation to the city’s deputy mayor on public safety and chair of the council, but to no avail. So they went out and did the work themselves.
Last year, the class successfully helped a nonprofit author a proposal for a federal $1 million second-chance grant, a suggestion they said the city failed to make note of. But they said the grant will not be enough to take care of the number of people in the city’s criminal-justice system.
“It’s about a new system,” said LaToya Evans, a senior in the class. “There has been some inclusion of the re-entry community [in recent District policy], but they need more.”
Evans pressed White to consider becoming a legislative ally to the group as they push for their proposal to become law in the District.
White said he would consider.
“I think the proposal is really wonderful,” he said. “I think a proposal like this will meet some real resistance in the beginning … and you will really need to hone in on the public safety aspect so that people understand why we are creating the investment.”
Two of White’s proposed bills focus on the re-entry population. One bill would require the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs to contact incarcerated residents at least six months before they return home to help them identify housing and employment, provide a transportation stipend and to help them get government identification using their identification information from the federal Bureau of Prisons. The other would require background-check companies to provide accurate criminal records to potential landlords and employers.
“It helps them to get adjusted,” White said.
He said he hopes to have the elements of his bills funded and passed with the Council’s upcoming close to the 2019 fiscal budget cycle as write into the budget to fund and pass the bills at the same time.
He told the group to consider partnering with other organizations to push their legislation.