05.14.12

Washington, D.C., Law Seeks to Limit Late-Night Jail Releases

The first hours after an inmate’s release are crucial to remaining on the straight-and-narrow path—and those freed in the middle of the night may be put in danger. Chris Opfer reports on Washington, D.C., legislation to curb the practice.

Anyone who’s scaled the long, steep escalator at the Dupont Circle Metro station, taking stairs two and three at a time, only to find the last train already gone at 12:03 a.m. on a Thursday night, or participated in the bobbing-for-apples exercise that is Union Station’s “cab stand” after dark knows just how difficult it can be for generally law-abiding citizens to find late-night transportation in the nation’s capital.

Hitching a ride in the wee hours of the night becomes an even trickier proposition when you’re just outside the walls of city lockup wearing a prison-issued sweatsuit.

This, essentially, is the idea behind a proposed law that would fine D.C. jailers each time they release a prisoner overnight, a measure that follows a similar effort in one state that so far has garnered mixed results.

“We do not help inmates’ ability to reenter society when we’re releasing them late at night without access to any services,” said D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson. “On top of that, it’s just wrong to be releasing these people in the middle of the night.”

Last year, Mendelson introduced legislation that would fine D.C.’s Department of Corrections $1,000 each time it releases an inmate after 10 p.m. He argues that inmates should be released during daytime hours so that they have access to basic services that many need after a stretch behind bars, including food and shelter.

“A lot of these people who are released are really lacking in any resources. They may have bus fare, but of course there may not be a bus at 2 in the morning,” said Mendelson.

His goal is to ensure that the rehabilitation process a prison stint is partly intended to serve extends to an inmate’s release and reintegration into society. For inmates released at night, it’s less likely that they can find support right away, he fears.

According to California prison consultant Tom Miller, the first night out is the most important—and toughest—in a newly released inmate’s journey on the straight-and-narrow path. “You don’t always make the best decisions when you’re first released,” said Miller, who added that a late-night release makes reintegration all the more difficult. “It’s irresponsible to release someone who already clearly has problems that late at night.”

This isn’t the first time D.C. has considered the issue. In 2004 District lawmakers passed legislation banning inmate releases between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. But officials stopped enforcing the law in 2009 amid concerns of its legality raised by then–attorney general Peter Nickles. The measure was later declared unconstitutional by a federal-court ruling in Barnes v. District of Columbia. “Whatever its intended purpose, the ordinance’s effect was to turn delayed releases into automatic, overnight overdetentions in cases where the Records Office was unable to complete the release process by 10 p.m.,” the court ruled.

So Mendelson and his colleagues amended the law in 2010 to allow for late-night release but force DOC to take steps to ensure that an inmate released after 10 p.m. has a place to go and a way to get there. The law requires DOC to ensure that these inmates have housing or shelter, clothing (inmates without other clothes are issued a gray sweatsuit), a week’s supply of any necessary medication, and transportation, be it by a friend or family, taxi, or a member of the corrections staff.

“There were actually predatory men that would drive by and offer [freshly released women prisoners] a ride home in exchange for favors.”

“The idea was to make it a lot of work, so it would just be easier to release inmates before 10 o’clock,” Mendelson said.

The new law’s proposed fine is designed to give city jailers an even bigger incentive to release prisoners on time.

Tucked away in a corner of Southeast D.C., near the western bank of the Anacostia River, the city’s Central Detention Facility houses more 2,000 inmates each day, most of whom have been convicted of a misdemeanor or are awaiting trial. Felons convicted in the District serve time in federal prisons across the country. Including a treatment facility and a number of halfway houses, DOC has taken in almost 70,000 inmates and released slightly more than that number this year.

The department declined to comment on the proposed law, except to say DOC is required to comply with the law presently on the books. At a September 2011 hearing, however, then–interim DOC director Thomas P. Hoey opposed the fines, arguing that inmate release includes a comprehensive clearance process—such as checks to ensure that the inmate is not wanted elsewhere—requiring input from a number of other agencies not subject to the same time limits.

A rush in the process, Hoey said, “could result in an inmate who is wanted as a fugitive in another matter being freed.”

Mendelson isn’t buying it. “DOC fights any legislation because it denies them the flexibility to be lazy in the release process,” he said. In the Barnes case, the court determined that the records check should take only two to two and a half hours.

Yet Hoey also said DOC has significantly reduced the number of inmates released after 10 p.m. In April D.C.’s chief financial officer reported that the department released five prisoners between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. in the first five months of fiscal year 2012, down from an average 10 to 15 late-night releases per month in fiscal year 2011.

Legislation has also pushed the issue elsewhere. In Texas a state law that would have banned late-night jail releases stalled after passing through the state Senate last year. That didn’t stop the Lone Star State’s largest local clink, Harris County Jail, from instituting its own ban. Earlier this year, the jail administration decided it would no longer release inmates after midnight.

“The thinking was, if we can design a system that’s going to comply with what we think was going to be a smart bill and that’s going to be introduced again, we might as well do it now,” said Alan Bernstein, the director of public affairs at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Overnight-release policies vary throughout the country: the Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the federal penitentiary system, allows each institution to set local rules on inmate-release times, while the Oregon state prison system says it releases a small portion of inmates overnight, usually from rural prisons, so that the inmate can reach his hometown and check in with a probation officer within legally mandated time limits.

Bernstein credits starting the release process early as the key to getting inmates out on time in Harris County. “We’re plucking people out of their cells earlier in the process so that they’re staged for release a little bit earlier,” he said.

The push for daytime releases isn’t only a matter of inmate welfare. It’s also easy to see how folks living in a neighborhood near a local prison might be less than happy about the prospect of someone fresh off a three-month robbery or assault stint wandering around the area late at night. While Mendelson said he’s heard nary a complaint from residents in the community near the D.C. lockup, his proposed law is aimed at ensuring both inmate safety and “the safety of the surrounding community.”

Advocates cite the specific threat posed by overnight releases for female inmates, with tales of suspicious characters circling like vultures in women’s-lockup parking lots after dark. Before Harris County instituted its current policy, Bernstein said, “there were actually predatory men that would drive by and offer [freshly released women prisoners] a ride home in exchange for favors.”

That is not the worst of it. In 2009 24-year-old Mitrice Richardson was arrested in Malibu, Calif., after reportedly acting strangely and refusing to pay her bill at an upscale restaurant. Richardson went missing after she was released from the nearby Los Angeles County sheriff’s station shortly before 1 a.m. without her car, which had been impounded, or a working cellphone. The remains of her body were found in a ravine almost a year later.

While Richardson’s mother says she asked police not to release her daughter until she arrived to pick Mitrice up—after a roughly 40-mile drive from the family’s home in Los Angeles—the cops maintain that Richardson asked to leave once she had been processed.

The Richardsons reportedly reached a $900,000 settlement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department last year.