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On the day Michael White walked into a D.C. courtroom, his brother, Robert White Jr., walked into a classroom.
Michael, the older, rowdier of the pair, would be sentenced to serve about two years in prison.
Robert, who is now a city-wide D.C. councilmember, was starting prep classes for the bar exam.
As kids, Michael and Robert were close, yet they could not have been more different. They were born 15 months apart, and because they split time between their mother’s and father’s homes and moved frequently, the major constant for each boy was the other.
In the alley behind one of their childhood homes, Robert—dressed in his councilmember’s costume, with shiny black shoes and a tie—describes playing ball and riding bicycles up a hill that now doesn’t seem so steep.
Michael, in a separate conversation, describes adventures the boys had in the creeks and parks around D.C. Both brothers remember the bus driver who only charged them half fare. They’d use the other half to buy candy. Robert would get Now and Laters; Michael liked Hot Tamales.
Robert struggled in school and along the way earned a reputation as a class clown.
“I pretty much failed a number of classes every year through my 10th grade year,” he says.
But for Michael, schoolwork came easy. He breezed through high school and occasionally finished Robert’s homework for him.
It wasn’t until a school counselor told Robert that he had no business going to college, and to consider the military instead, that a switch flipped. Robert forged his father’s signature on a transfer application and enrolled at Archbishop Carroll High School, where he shed the attitude that had earned him a reputation as a slacker at his previous school.
Robert was poised to follow in his brother’s footsteps, but then Michael stumbled and their paths began to diverge. Michael got a girl pregnant during his first year of college and dropped out to care for his new daughter. Robert went on to law school. Michael started coming in contact with the police. He at times turned to alcohol to escape the monotony of his nine-to-five job.
In 2006, Michael fled from the police after he hit a person with his car while driving drunk. That’s what landed him in prison.
Ultimately Robert got a job as legislative counsel in Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s office. He lost a 2014 election to the D.C. Council, but won in 2016.
Now, at 36, Robert draws from his brother’s experience with the criminal justice system as a major driver of his policy priorities.
Since September 2016, when Robert White was sworn in as the at-large councilmember to replace Vincent Orange, one of the major pillars of his platform has been supporting returning citizens—those who have been released from jail or prison.
A few months after White took office, the Council for Court Excellence, a nonpartisan organization that works toward an equitable criminal justice system in D.C., released a report laying out a dizzying array of obstacles for returning citizens in the District. Limited affordable housing, employment opportunities, and access to healthcare were among the deficiencies the report identified, along with shortfalls in the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs.
Similarly, a 2015 report by the Office of the Inspector General found that MORCA lacked “fundamental organizational mechanisms” for connecting D.C.’s returning citizens with services.
Emily Tatro, deputy director for the Council for Court Excellence, says that many of the concerns raised in the organization’s report have been addressed, including increased funding for MORCA.
“I think there has been a lot of one-off legislation,” she says of the Council’s previous record with returning citizens. “Certainly there’s been progress over time, but this is the most coordinated and strategic movement we’ve had in a while, and it’s exciting.” Tatro also worked on White’s transition team in 2016.
She says the Council had already made some good steps forward, such as passing the “ban the box” law in 2014, which bars employers from requiring applicants to disclose their criminal record before extending a job offer, and establishing MORCA in 2007.
D.C. also allows people convicted of felony crimes to vote after they’re released from incarceration—a right that’s up for debate in some states.
As a councilmember, Robert White helped to secure vital funding for MORCA by convincing other councilmembers to allocate money out of their respective committees. Altogether, Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, Kenyan McDuffie, Charles Allen, Anita Bonds and Mary Cheh allocated nearly $600,000 over the past two years toward increasing staff and formulating a strategic plan for the office.
In early October, one of Robert White’s bills providing assistance to D.C. residents released from incarceration took effect. The new law, Returning Citizens Opportunity to Succeed Amendment Act, requires MORCA to start tracking all city residents confined in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. Starting next year, District officials will reach out to each of those individuals within six months of their scheduled release dates and provide information about housing and employment.
A 2018 analysis of data by the D.C. Policy Center found that at least 43 percent of the nearly 10,000 people supervised by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency were unemployed. Among the most prominent predictors of employment were housing status and intensity of supervision.
The new law also waives the fees for birth certificates, ID cards, learners’ permits, and drivers’ licenses for people released from BOP facilities—breaking down a significant hurdle for those leaving prison with few or no resources and no proof of identity.
An issue Robert says he wishes he could address: Sentenced D.C. residents often end up in far-flung BOP facilities, away from their families and those who might visit them or ease their transition when their release date is near. Although BOP attempts to place D.C. code violators near the District, some are held in facilities on the other side of the country, he says.
“We have no jurisdiction over BOP, nor have they been particularly responsive to the Council even before this administration,” he says.
Tatro points to another of Robert’s bills aimed at helping individuals with criminal records get jobs and housing, the Criminal Record Accuracy Assurance Act. The bill would restrict criminal backgrounding agencies to providing only records of criminal convictions. Consequently, the background report would not include records of arrests, or charges that were dismissed or sealed by a judge.
“You have a lot of people being kept out of jobs or housing for things the courts have said, ‘This doesn’t exist,’ or when someone is only charged with a crime, and not convicted,” Robert says. “And that’s just patently unfair.”
On Thanksgiving Day 10 years ago, Michael was supposed to join the family for dinner. He’d been released just a few weeks prior, and was living in Hope Village, the District’s only halfway house for men.
The facility has become known at “Hopeless Village” among its past denizens.
Shortly before dinner, Hope Village officials revoked Michael’s privileges to eat with his family. He says that these kinds of rules hindered more than helped his re-entry. Curfews, for example, often conflicted with the reality of taking public transportation.
Now, the BOP appears ready to terminate its relationship with Hope Village. Last week, BOP signed a new $60 million contract with a different private company to establish a new halfway house in Northeast D.C. near the Maryland border. The new facility is scheduled to open March 1, one day after Hope Village’s contract expires.
D.C. councilmembers and Congresswoman Holmes Norton have criticized the contract for BOP’s failed efforts to engage with District leaders and residents, and for the facility’s location, which is not near public transportation.
After he was released from Hope Village, Michael fought to get a job and build meaningful relationships with his children, who moved in with him. For a time, he fell into a familiar routine of working hard for little money. He watched as people with degrees and no felony record passed him by.
Eventually, his kids moved in with their mother. He quit his job, broke his lease, and “couched it” for a few months with a friend, then with his father, and then in his car parked in a church parking lot.
Michael describes this period in his life in terms of a search for greater fulfillment and direction. For the year he was homeless, he volunteered at a soup kitchen, spent afternoons reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the library, and nights in his car that didn’t run.
He says that, out of pride or disillusionment, he largely rejected many of the government-funded re-entry programs that his brother is now pushing.
“I never looked into them because I looked at everything with a slant,” he says. “You locked me up, and then you’re like, ‘Here let me help you out.’ I wasn’t buying it.”
What he hopes will be his saving grace came from a local organization, HOPE Project, which provides an IT training program that focuses on returning citizens and people with no college degree.
Michael graduated from the program and recently landed a job with a software company in Georgia. He hopes to one day start his own company—maybe that will bring him the fulfillment he’s been searching for.
Robert, meanwhile, can’t fathom the level of risk his brother seems to thrive on. His own moves are planned, calculated.
City Paper asked him whether he might run for mayor.
“The honest answer is I’m only 36. I might run for higher office,” he says. “I would say it’s likely, but it’s not something I’m focused on right now.”