The office charged with providing services to some 8,000 returning citizens per year is ill-equipped to successfully meet its goals, which are among Mayor Muriel Bowser’s highest priorities, a D.C. Office of the Inspector General report released last week says.
Bowser’s “Safer, Stronger” plan pledges a “pathway to the middle class” for the District’s most vulnerable citizens, many of whom suffer from physical, mental, and substance abuse, limited education and job skills, and an unstable family background. But the 52-page report raises serious questions about whether the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs is up to the task.
OIG inspectors found that, while MORCA staff worked diligently to directly serve returning citizens, it “lacked fundamental organizational mechanisms and resources” to inform them about available resources and collaborate with other entities on critical job readiness, life skills, and family reunification services. According to the report, ORCA Director Charles Thornton agreed to seven of 12 recommendations to improve internal efficiency among staff and external collaboration with District and federal agencies.
MORCA advises the mayor on policies involving returning citizens, coordinates with government and private agencies on employment, education, housing, and health initiatives, and collaborates with the Commission on Re-entry and Returning Citizen Affairs, which serves similar functions. It also interfaces with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an independent agency that develops funding strategies and manages IT systems.
MORCA dates to 2008, and has been politicized during election seasons due to progressive laws that allow convicted felons to vote upon their release from prison. It operates with a small staff on a $376,026 budget, according to the report, and is the lead among a number of city agencies that work with returning citizens, such as the Department of Employment Services and the Department of Corrections. In FY 2014, 2,058 new clients registered with ORCA, and 3,739 returning clients received services, the report states. ORCA found employment for 152 clients in FY 2013 and 247 in FY 2014.
Yet the OIG criticized the office for its lack of a strategic plan and inability to apply for and obtain grants. When asked by D.C. councilmembers during oversight hearings in 2014 about staffing, funding sources, and program models, ORCA could not provide definitive answers, leading to “serious concerns that ORCA is not meeting the needs of the District’s many returning citizens,” the report states. The OIG also criticized the agency for allowing a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding with more than 20 local and federal agencies to expire before implementing some 70 measures to get returning citizens back on their feet. Thornton did not return an email and a call to his office.
Bowser, who recently paid a visit to the District’s central detention facility, launched a pilot program with DOC and DOES to provide six weeks of pre-release job training and placement to male inmates and a 14-week program focused on “professional etiquette, conflict management, and digital literacy” for female inmates.
“I don’t know about past mayors, but this mayor is putting specific emphasis on the issue,” said Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster.
It is unclear what role MORCA will play in those initiatives. But a story published Tuesday by a Ford Foundation-backed nonprofit, Next City, showcases MORCA and Thornton as leaders of the District’s efforts to fix “one of the urban world’s biggest challenges.” The story cites MORCA as “an incredibly rare instance of a city taking on prisoner re-entry as a basic municipal service,” and heralds Thornton’s own successful, post-incarceration rehabilitation.
Now it will be up to Bowser to reconcile that depiction with the problems cited in the OIG report.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery