How to Decarcerate DC Effectively

7 min readMay 7, 2020


DC has another unique opportunity to be leaders in the effort to protect residents during COVID-19. The District can change lives and utilize federal funds to keep DC functional as we recover from the pandemic. The CARES ACT gives our city leadership wide latitude in how those federal funds can be used.

The question we should be asking is this: will DC prioritize taking progressive measures to advance public health and safety in our communities by investing in housing, health care, and income for all? Or will we allow police departments throughout the District to waste vital resources on trying to police our way out of a pandemic, harming and disappearing drug users, Sex Workers, LGBTQ folks, and Black and Brown community members in the process?

The federal assistance DC receives for the pandemic response must be used wisely. Wisely means that the government must not throw this assistance into the greedy money pit that ineffective policing in DC has proven to be.

MPD is one example of how policing has been ineffective at saving lives. MPD receives millions of dollars and they have ZERO DELIVERABLES to produce or show how they’ve used funds effectively. And they continue to get hefty budget increases that continue to have zero results. More policing, arresting, and continuing to house people in carceral facilities that have COVID-19 running rampant through them is cruel and unusual punishment without question. Social distancing in jails is virtually impossible with the crowded conditions and small spaces people are shoved into. It makes the most sense not to continue aggressively policing the city, to discontinue making arrests for petty offenses, and to release as many people as possible from holding facilities to reduce liability issues for city government.

It is unconscionable to force people to be exposed to a deadly virus while trapped in holding facilities. Ideally, DC should release them all, but even if the majority are released that affords the opportunity to improve the conditions for those who will ultimately remain incarcerated. Less people in holding facilities means more space between people who remain there to social distance. Less people means less staff who can potentially infect those who will remain. This frees up money to better staff with medical personnel and the proper medical equipment to assist in saving lives should COVID-19 remain an issue.

To further add to DC coffers, give those released cash in hand to help them to find and stay sheltered. Assistance provided to people released from holding facilities should not be a mere few dollars, but a several hundred to a thousand dollars apiece. Many people released from jail are also people who will not receive funding from the stimulus packages. Those funds will almost immediately be returned as tax dollars collected locally.

DC should also take steps to make sure released people are safely housed. The shelter system is already beyond capacity and not equipped for social distancing. There should also be partnerships with local hotels and motels to book blocks of rooms at reduced rates for those who are released. Partnerships with vacant property owners will also be beneficial in order to provide housing for those who have pre-existing health conditions and long term housing issues.

And what about giving people released from holding facilities employment opportunities as city workers with agencies that still operate regularly? Streets and sanitation departments are working, along with Parks & Recreation and others (and all deserve hazard pay though the COVID-19 pandemic). There are entities that have positions to be filled, let them take priority on filling those open jobs.

Yes, we know they cannot hire them all, but we can do better than pouring millions into policing when we have enough leeway in how the funds can be used and since police departments like MPD already have huge budgets and a surplus themselves.

We have an opportunity to not only save lives by not allowing traumatic experiences to tarnish lives during and following this pandemic, but to change them for the better in the long run. Instead of policing the people to death, we can be proactive and give them a hand up during the pandemic that can last beyond the crisis. There’s a way out by using the funds proactively and productively that can also halt hiring freezes being proposed during recovery. This solution makes sense for the District on an economic level. For people who can work safely during the pandemic, more people working equals more people spending money, and therefore maintaining and creating more jobs in the long run to recovery. This adds up to more taxes collected, so long as workers can social distance and maintain a certain level of safety until the pandemic ends. And remember, these funds do not have to be spent now, but utilized later as DC starts to reopen and we need to bolster the economy again. That’s a win-win-win. The purse string they hold so damn tight can actually create a dividend if it’s not wasted on the same old policing. And besides, the pandemic won’t last forever and this could be a way forward for the city. This could be the chance to lead on how to change lives in the process of saving lives and not letting the District fall into a drawn out recovery..

Just think about this from the standpoint of what if it was you or your loved ones.

Wouldn’t you conclude what is currently being done equates to Russian roulette with lives when what should be done is aiding human beings to protect themselves during an unprecedented deadly pandemic? We treat our animals better and with more respect than we treat our human counterparts, real talk. Nothing about jail has a rehabilitative effect. They are horrible, unproductive and vile institutions and now they are deadly due to COVID-19 running rampant through them. Once you’ve been institutionalized, it is hard as hell to regain and maintain your freedom and get your life back. This is something we can change today. There’s federal money available to be used at our jurisdiction’s discretion that doesn’t necessarily have to go to MPD or any other policing agency to waste trying to solve problems that city government should be addressing with resources and services vital to survival. It is a proven fact that resources, support and jobs reduce crime ahead of overfunded policing agencies that have never reduced crime to begin with.What we should be doing is taking this opportunity to pour funds into fixing some of the Districts long standing issues with disparities. First and foremost we should be making sure every resident in the District has resources throughout the pandemic. And now is the time to fix accessibility issues with city services before we reopen. The time for change is upon us to better the outcome for everyone regardless of economic status, race, gender identity, or whether they use drugs or do sex work, and not just the gentrified parts of DC. Something we can change also is the District providing barrier free employment as well, allowing anyone who wants to work to have a job if they want one. We can use the funds to bolster budgets to fill job vacancies as we reopen and be the leader in the recovery of DC. It’s also time to fully decriminalize Sex Work and drug paraphenalia. That’s progressive and proactive. It’s about rehabilitative measures in a country focused on punishment and incarceration. Wouldn’t you want this opportunity for yourself, your loved ones or your family?

To recap: release as many people as possible from holding facilities, provide them with cash assistance and offer them safe and healthy housing options, and finally-find a way to put resources towards changing the destiny of some of these folks. We should be rehabilitating folks and providing them unfettered access to resources instead of finding new ways to lock them up.

We are our brother’s keeper, so let’s start acting like it.

Now is the time to press local elected officials to get ahead of the game by protecting their lives and our lives while putting these folks in a position to survive through the pandemic with something positive to look forward to long term . Reach out to our elected officials and let them know anything less is not acceptable.

This is a good way for DC to be a shining example for the country to aspire to if they get ahead of what could be a disaster in the making. Or we can continue doing the same thing policing the hell outta marginalized communities expecting different results.


For more info reach out to and to our elected officials by using the phone numbers and emails listed below to voice your concerns about saving the lives of the District’s most vulnerable residents.

Call or email the mayor’s office @ Phone: (202) 727–2643/

And the council members legislative staffers:

Ward 1 Brianne K. Nadeau
Aamir Mansoor, Legislative Director
Telephone: (202) 724–4353

Ward 2 (formerly Evans office but Mendelson’s staff are responding)
Chairman Phil Mendelson

Mike Battle, Legislative Assistant
Telephone: (202)724–8108

Ward 3 Mary Cheh
Michael Porcello, Legislative & Committee Director
Telephone: (202)724–8062

Ward 4 Brandon Todd
Manny Geraldo, Legislative Director
Telephone: (202)724–8035

Ward 5 Kenyan R. McDuffie
Brian McClure, Policy Director and Legislative Affairs
Telephone: (202) 727–3888

Ward 6 Charles Allen
Chris Laskowski, Legislative Director
Telephone: (202)724–8072

Ward 7 Vincent Gray
Terrance Norflis, Legislative Director

Ward 8 Trayon White, Sr.
Tracey Jackson, Legislative Director
Telephone: 202–724–8045

David Grosso, At Large
Darby Hickey, Senior Legislative Advisor
Telephone: (202)-724–8061

Anita Bonds, At Large
Hector Rodriguez, Program Service Analyst
Telephone: (202)724–8064

Elissa Silverman, At Large
Kelly Hunt, Senior Policy Advisor
Telephone: (202)724–7772

Robert C. White, Jr., At Large
Katie Whitehouse, Senior Legislative Assistant
Telephone: (202) 727–8229




HIPS is a nonprofit organization in Washington DC the fights for the rights, health and safety of people who engage in sex work or drug use.