OP-ED: The coronavirus pandemic requires good-faith adjustments to our criminal justice system

By Karl A. Racine
Attorney General for the District of Columbia
Op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Post

D.C. Department of Corrections

As the novel coronavirus pandemic grew, those of us in the criminal justice system recognized that the virus, which spreads easily and thrives where there are large concentrations of people in confined spaces, could be catastrophic for the 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States and those who work in jails and prisons. Prosecutors have a responsibility to protect public safety, which is why more than two dozen of us joined in a statement advocating for an immediate reduction in incarceration and common-sense measures to improve conditions and reduce the spread of infection behind bars.

The District and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) are seeking to do just this. We moved to sharply reduce the number of people held in the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC). Specifically, at the beginning of this public health emergency, there were 23 people jailed in DOC facilities on OAG charges. After evaluating each case, OAG prosecutors requested the Superior Court release all those who did not appear to pose a danger to the community. Today, only eight of the 23 individuals remain in custody. Fifteen people, or 65 percent of those previously jailed, are no longer in DOC custody.

Working with our law enforcement partners, the OAG also changed the way people accused of committing nonviolent misdemeanor offenses are processed through the system. Rather than bring these individuals to jail pending review by a judge and consistent with public safety, police officers are now issuing citations and notices to appear in court at a future date. This policy has the benefit of reducing person-to-person contact between members of the community, the police, marshals who process prisoners at the court and DOC guards.

Despite the steps we have already taken, local advocates, as is their right, have been critical of our work, and especially critical of the OAG’s role in defending the DOC in a recent lawsuit. As the District’s chief legal officer, I am statutorily required, absent an ethical or legal conflict, to represent District agencies, including the DOC, in lawsuits brought against the District.

OAG lawyers are defending the DOC in a federal suit challenging conditions at its facilities. Significantly, DOC Director Quincy L. Booth and his general counsel have made clear that the OAG is to work with the court in a transparent and accountable manner that protects public safety, as well as the safety of the men and women in the custody of the D.C. jail and those who guard them at the DOC. These two objectives are not mutually exclusive, and the court will determine whether the District is meeting these two standards.

The pandemic requires good-faith adjustments to our criminal justice system to ensure the safety of the public, as well as that of the police, incarcerated people and those who guard them. In the District, we are seeking to achieve this objective by following the principles of public safety, fairness and justice.