This appeared in Friday’s Washington Post.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has ordered District of Columbia officials to explain a string of unauthorized early releases of inmates facing charges. It’s not the first time city officials have been hauled into court by federal judges irate about record-keeping at the District jail. Indeed, such cases stretch back as far as two decades; and what’s most troubling is that the same explanations—confusion over orders, human error, inadequate staff—seem to recur.
Friday’s hearing, which involves the near-release of a man whom the judge had declared a threat to public safety, comes amid a spate of troubling mistakes at the District jail. Since June 1, The Post’s Spencer S. Hsu and Lynh Bui reported, at least five other inmates who had been ordered held in pending federal criminal cases were mistakenly released by corrections officials, returned only after they were rearrested or surrendered.
Among the cases: a man accused in the fatal shooting of his 16-year-old girlfriend was at large for four days, a defendant awaiting trial on a charge of illegal possession of a firearm, and a man who actually told corrections officials he didn’t think he was supposed to be released because he was awaiting sentencing for walking out of a halfway house. Just as troubling are instances in which people have been wrongly held in jail because officials didn’t realize charges had been dropped.
District Attorney General Karl Racine, D, acknowledged in a court filing that the District was at fault in the case of the man declared a public-safety threat by Sullivan. Racine said remedial steps have been taken, including discipline against an employee. A factor in many of the other cases is the complexity of a system in which there is overlap between federal and District officials. Corrections officials have called the “paper flow process” among the courts and jail “extremely complex” and have pointed out they annually handle about 50,000 intakes, releases,returns, transports, transfers and holds.
No doubt it is a hard job. But that can’t excuse holding innocent people, nor turning dangerous ones loose.