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ĎEscapesí overstated, critics say

(Published March 22, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

D.C. officials and two independent public policy organizations are criticizing recent media reports about problems in the cityís halfway houses, saying the scope of the problems has been exaggerated and misreported.

While articles and editorials published by The Washington Post in January and February decried hundreds of dangerous felons escaping into the community to commit more crimes, critics say that perception just isnít true.

An analysis of data from the same period cited by the Post ó conducted by the

Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization; the D.C. Prisoners Legal Services Project, a group that works to defend the rights of prisoners; and American University assistant professor Katherine Kravitz Ė found that only two pretrial escapees charged with a violent felony remain at large. The study also found only one halfway house escapee during the period was re-arrested for a violent felony, a robbery.

"Many reported escapees are really late arrivals at the halfway house from weekends or workdays," said Jay Carver, trustee for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, during a D.C. City Council hearing on March 10. "A more accurate description of their status might be Ďconditional release violator.í"

If halfway house residents are even 15 minutes late in returning from work release, corrections personnel are required to report them as being escaped. In some cases, halfway house residents were listed as escapees when they didnít return from the courthouse after their cases had been dismissed.

The Post series said one-third of all halfway house detainees escaped during a three-month period at the end of last year. The series sparked city council oversight hearings and one new piece of proposed legislation to try to solve the perceived problem. But critics contend the problem has been overstated and any reforms should be undertaken only after careful study of the situation.

In one instance cited by the public policy groupsí study, the Post reported Robert Lee Kendrick walked away from a halfway house in the District, where he was awaiting trial on robbery charges, and was arrested by Arlington police the same day for robbery and malicious wounding. In fact, according to the study, Kendrick left the halfway house during approved hours and turned himself in to Arlington police on the outstanding charges. D.C. Superior Court has been notified and a bench warrant has been issued for Kendrick, so that when his Arlington case is finished he will be returned to the District without being released.

Using data from the D.C. Department of Corrections, the Post stated that during the last three months of 1998, 376 people walked away from D.C. halfway houses. Most of those were on pretrial work release in the halfway houses. The Post also said 250 of these 376 release violators were still reported on escape status.

The trusteeís analysis showed the number of residents still on escape status was actually less than a third of what the Post reported. Once all the names were double-checked, the true number was approximately 80, 50 of whom were in pre-trial release.

"Our stories up to that point were based on records provided by the Department of Corrections," said Post Metro editor Keith Harriston, who said he was not aware of any factual errors in the series. He said the Post is not planning to run any follow-up stories on the issue to correct errors in the original stories.

"The numbers, I think, are deceiving," said Councilman Harold Brazil, D-At large, who held several public hearings before the councilís Judiciary Committee after the Post articles appeared. "There is a threat to public safety, but not as much as the numbers would lead you to believe."

Persons on pretrial work release are placed in halfway houses by judges to await trial because, by law, if they were held in jail they would have to be prosecuted within 100 days. If for whatever reason a prosecutor cannot bring the defendant to trial in that period, a judge can choose to place that person in pretrial work release rather than simply releasing them from custody. They are then allowed to leave the halfway house only to go to work or to look for jobs. Many are also given "social passes" that allow them to be away from the halfway house on weekends.

"In theory itís the strictest form of pretrial release available," Carver said in an interview. "But we know from the reports that thatís not the case."

Councilman Vincent Orange, D-Ward 5, introduced legislation that would prohibit people charged with a violent or dangerous crime from being placed in a halfway house.

"The question that arises in my mind is what happens to the person who is charged with these crimes?" said Carver, who said he has not seen the legislation. "Are they released into the community?"

"We donít want so-called reforms to make things worse," Jason Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute said.

Carver, who stressed that his agency does not run any halfway houses, did not deny that there is a problem with conditional release violators in the District.

"The public has the right to expect well-run halfway houses," Carver said. "Itís important to provide correct information in order to solve the problems."

Carver said one of the main problems with the Districtís halfway houses is a lack of effective case management. He said corrections personnel need to keep closer tabs on residents to ensure they follow the conditions of their release. He also said accountability of halfway house residents has to be better established and maintained so residents are fully aware of the consequences of program violations.

Brazil, echoing comments made by Carver, said the problems involve many city agencies that are involved in the halfway houses. Brazil said he will try to direct some of the money earmarked for the Department of Corrections in the mayorís proposed capital budget to improving safety at the halfway houses.

Besides pretrial residents, halfway houses also hold pre-parole felons and people convicted of misdemeanors. Those on pretrial work release number about 300, pre-parole felons are about 130 and sentenced misdemeanants are about 45.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator