By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008; DZ04
The District has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, according to a report that says jails nationwide are bursting at the seams even though crime is nearly as low as it has been in 30 years.
The report by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based group that focuses on what it considers an over-reliance on incarceration, said that people are more likely than ever to stay in city and county jails before trial. One reason is they can't afford bail. A significant portion of those in jail are homeless, addicted to drugs or mentally ill -- not hardened criminals, the report said.
Incarceration comes at a high cost. In 2004, local governments spent $19 billion to fund jails, compared with $8.7 billion on libraries and $28 billion on higher education, the report said.
In the District, 3,214 inmates are under city control at the D.C. jail and contract facilities. That is 553 people per 100,000 residents. Only Philadelphia and two Tennessee counties, Davidson and Shelby, lock up residents at a higher rate.
"The vast majority of people held in jail are not there for violent crimes," said Amanda Petteruti, a researcher and policy analyst with the Justice Policy Institute who co-wrote the report, "Jailing Communities: The Impact of Jail Expansion and Effective Public Safety Strategies."
"It's people who are homeless that are sleeping on streets, people arrested for drug crimes and graffiti," Petteruti said. "The money spent on jails could be directed to education, employment, housing and other social services that would improve public safety and make our communities better overall."
The numbers do not include people in state prisons on more serious charges or, in the case of the District, the nearly 7,000 inmates from the city being held in federal prisons. As part of a deal with Congress a decade ago, District prisoners are spread across 75 institutions in 33 states. Activists have been fighting for years to get Congress to pay more attention to what happens to those prisoners sent out of state.
A spotlight also has been shined on crowding at the D.C. jail.
In October, for example, a D.C. Superior Court judge threatened to hold Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in contempt of court for refusing to adhere to a law requiring the city to set a limit on the number of inmates who can be held in the D.C. jail.
A week later, the District government agreed to cap the number of inmates at the jail at 2,164. The number had been pushed by the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, which sued to force the city to comply with a 2004 law aimed at improving conditions and operations at the District's main jail after two stabbing deaths and other inmate violence.
Under the agreement, the city will adhere to the population cap, except in "exigent circumstances," such as an unexpected mass arrest. Since becoming mayor, Fenty has visited the jail on several occasions to hear from inmates about how to improve conditions and ease the transition of inmates back into the community upon release.