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D.C. halfway houses find themselves short of space.

Halfway houses are second only to the proposed closing of D.C. General Hospital as a hot-button issue in District politics these days. The pitched battle against the proposed reopening of an Adams Morgan halfway house for released prisoners, at 2019 19th St. NW, was won by its opponents this week, and a fight over a proposed halfway house in Southeast, located in Building 25 near the D.C. Jail, is still ongoing.

The Adams Morgan controversy was a textbook example of how to win such dogfights. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham led the charge, lobbying hard against a proposal by the Lanham-based nonprofit Bureau of Rehabilitation Inc. to reopen an Adams Morgan site for juvenile offenders, shuttered by fire last year, as an adult-offender facility. The halfway house, owned by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, sits across the street from the John Quincy Adams Elementary School—a fact that anchored much of the protest against it.

Opponents picked up powerful allies in their campaign, including the Washington Post, which published a Feb. 17 editorial calling on new U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to intervene in the Adams Morgan fight. Ashcroft toured the school on Feb. 23 and made the decision not to sanction the reopening of the facility four days later, on Feb. 27.

Graham is pleased by the attorney general’s decision.

“This isn’t about NIMBYism,” Graham argues. “This is about neighborhoods doing their fair share.” He cites statistics from 1997 and 1998 that place his ward near the top of a ward-by-ward count of halfway-house beds. “We don’t want this saturation, and we certainly don’t want [halfway houses] located next to elementary schools.”

But if Ward 1 won its skirmish, the city as a whole is losing the war. A new report, penned by D.C. Corrections Trustee John Clark and released by D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton last week, outlines an imminent crisis in halfway-house space in the District. The report projects that the District must increase its present number of beds by 42 percent—or 250 beds—to meet a total of 600 needed by October 2001. To put those numbers in perspective, the Adams Morgan halfway house would have added only 28 new beds to that total.

Detailing “significant ongoing challenges” in the conclusion of the report, Clark writes that “the Bureau of Prisons and many current HWH [halfway-house] contractors continue to face significant community opposition to this expansion. Moreover, interested bidders are facing strong community opposition and are also experiencing increasing difficulty in securing the necessary zoning approvals.”

The near doubling in the number of required beds over the next seven months and the losing battles to obtain them are bad news. But the situation could be worse.

Along with the report, for instance, Norton released new statistics showing a sharp drop in the numbers of former halfway-house residents who had been rearrested. In May 1998, the number of D.C. parolees arrested on new charges stood at 158 for the year. In December 2000, the number had shrunk to 42 after new federal regulations required parolees to spend a post-release period in halfway houses, rather than be released into the population at large immediately.

In part because of those new regulations, the situation in the District’s parole and halfway-house system in August 2000 was grim. Inmates who were eligible for parole—at times, the number was close to 200—were forced to remain in prison because of major backlogs in the system.

Last week’s report was an account of intense efforts by multiple agencies to clear the logjam. Cooperation between the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons freed up halfway-house beds at the DOC-run Hope Village. Inmates who had previously been recommended for halfway houses were transferred into other post-incarceration programs, including home confinement. Average halfway-house stays were reduced from periods of 90 to 120 days to shorter stays of 60 to 90 days. According to Clark’s report, these and other “action steps” led to a temporary easing of the crisis.

The outlook for the future, however, is less comforting. Clark writes, “I would add the caution that maintaining this level of progress requires continued daily interagency interaction because of the pressure of the number of cases involved.”

The battle over the Adams Morgan halfway house may not make or break the efforts to create more halfway-house slots. Advocates for more halfway-house spaces, however, worry that the publicity that attends such fights may have a deeper and more lasting resonance.

“In a city that is short hundreds of community-based beds for returning ex-offenders from increasingly distant prisons,” argues Jason Ziedenberg, a senior analyst for the Justice Policy Institute, “the fact that some residents want the attorney general to step in to kill a plan for a 20-bed facility isn’t such a big deal. The far bigger threat is that we allow criminal-justice practices to be driven by hype, fear, and pandering rather than by sound public policy practices.”

Ziedenberg identifies media coverage of halfway houses as one of the principal engines of that hype. He was one of the co-authors of a 1999 report titled Half-Truths: The Complicated Story of D.C.’s Halfway House Escapees. The report dissected a January 1999 Washington Post series on halfway-house escapees, detailing large statistical errors and providing “context” for accounts of escaped halfway-house residents.

“The kinds of coverage that people see about crime are driving people into a frenzy,” says Ziedenberg.

Halfway-house supporter Marie Sennett, who lives just blocks from the proposed Adams Morgan facility, takes a neighborhood-level view of the opposition. “Neighborhood opposition is fueled primarily by fears imagined by neighborhood people whose children do not attend the school in question,” says Sennett, “and who experienced nothing more than snowball throwing and occasional catcalls by the former juvenile residents [of the halfway house].”

At a Feb. 5 community meeting on the Adams Morgan facility, observes Sennett, opponents who were challenged with the argument that they did not send children to the John Quincy Adams School shifted their concerns to a potential decrease in property values.

“The funny thing,” argues Sennett, “is that…especially during the past two years, when the halfway house was in operation, property values [have] skyrocketed.”

It seems certain that disputes over halfway houses in the District will continue. Graham has introduced a bill in the D.C. Council that will prohibit halfway houses from being established within 500 feet of a school, thus further restricting the search for new spaces.

“Obviously,” says Graham, “if such a house is already there, we’re not going to close it.” The bill, he stresses, should curb any future conflicts like the one in Adams Morgan.

Ziedenberg sees bills like Graham’s legislation as significant roadblocks in solving the severe space crunch that D.C.’s halfway houses already face.

“There are already plenty of community corrections facilities dotted around the city—near schools, churches, and shopping centers,” says Ziedenberg, “and these places haven’t turned into felonious minefields. Now that we are setting a bar against having halfway houses near schools, maybe we should call on the attorney general to close all the halfway houses in D.C. near schools—not just those in relatively prosperous and well-connected neighborhoods that can marshal newspaper editorials.” CP