The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act — which aims to reduce crime in the District — is currently undergoing final review by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser after receiving unanimous approval from the D.C. Council in its second reading.
Bowser has until March 25 to respond to and allow for the implementation of the bill, which seeks to support at-risk or dangerous individuals and to treat crime in the District as a public health issue.
At the council’s most recent legislative meeting March 1, NEAR Act sponsor Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said the bill would take a major step toward a more effective approach to District crime.
“Today the council is poised to pass a comprehensive, evidence-based criminal justice reform measure,” McDuffie said. “In so doing we will be fundamentally rethinking how we approach violent crime in the District of Columbia.”
There were multiple amendments made to the bill during its second reading, which came nearly a month after its Feb. 2 first reading. The first amendment, made by McDuffie, seeks to create a fund for the proposed Office of Neighborhood Engagement and Security, the centerpiece program of the NEAR Act. The program will identify individuals at risk of committing crimes and teach them life planning and mentorship skills.
The fund McDuffie established aims to combine public money provided by the District as well as private donations. The need for private donations arose after D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffery Dewitt stated D.C. would not have a sufficient budget to completely fund the office until at least 2017.
McDuffie argued that the current criminal justice system’s failures led to the need to create the new office.
“This council has recognized that the approach to which we have so desperately clung, built off of incarceration, does not work. In fact, it contributes to whole communities going missing, lost to a system over which the District government has little oversight or input,” McDuffie said. “It tears apart families and neighborhoods, and it irreparably harms our children.”
McDuffie additionally amended the bill to keep the personal information of at-risk individuals participating in the office’s programs from becoming public information.
McDuffie’s addendum also included language from the Washington, D.C. city code, explicitly stating that if an individual is charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest cannot be used as a legitimate justification. This seeks to limit the use of force against police officers, as multiple councilmembers have expressed concerns about the bill’s attempts to constrain the Metropolitan Police Department’s use of force in arrests.
Councilmember LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) proposed an additional amendment to the bill to create a voucher program for businesses participating in the Act’s Private Security Camera System Incentive Program. The program would provide rebates for establishments that install exterior security cameras.
According to May, her amendment would ask the District to pay up front the $500 needed for the private security programs for low-income businesses in order to minimize the financial impact.
“That payment can prevent people in areas of desperate need for crime prevention tactics from obtaining this resource,” May wrote in an email to The Hoya. “This Amendment to the NEAR Act ensures that private security cameras are accessible to all residents, especially those in high crime and low-income areas.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) introduced an additional amendment to the act that would give the Pretrial Services Agency the ability to initiate a process of holding an individual charged with a crime for up to 72 hours. The agency is an independent federal body that makes release recommendations for defendants awaiting trial. Currently, only District courts and the Washington, D.C., District Attorney’s Office holds the authority cited by the amendment.
Mendelson cited the inefficiency and potential danger of releasing suspects prematurely as a major concern prompting the addendum.
“Typically, a person who is released pending trial is released on the condition that they don’t reoffend, and sometimes they do, and that’s what this speaks to,” Mendelson said at the meeting. “We see that over and over.”
Georgetown University Police Department Chief Jay Gruber expressed support for the bill as a creative way of reducing crime in Washington. Gruber was especially supportive of Mendelson’s amendment to hold those accused of a crime for longer periods.
“I think the bill is a good step in getting a handle on city crime. Sometimes you need to try different things to get different results,” Gruber said. “The amendment made by Councilmember Mendelson should be considered and given a chance to see if it works.”