Communities of Color and Low-Income Communities Disproportionately Affected by the Justice System in the Nation’s Capitol

New report says D.C. has greatest income inequality of any major city in the country, suffering from major economic and racial disparities that contribute to high rates of justice-involvement.

Washington, D.C.—If you are poor or a person of color living in the nation’s capitol, you are more likely to be involved with the justice system, according to a new report released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). A Capitol Concern: The disproportionate impact of the justice system on low-income communities in D.C. examines the connection between poverty and incarceration in the District of Columbia. JPI found that people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated in the District; some Wards of D.C. are particularly affected both by poverty and the justice system; and that programs that help build healthy, safe communities – such as housing, education, and mental health – have seen their funding cut at the same time that funding for law enforcement and the attorney general’s office has increased. JPI will release a national report this fall, which will look more broadly at the issue of incarceration and poverty and what public policies and protective factors can lead to improved community well-being and less justice-involvement. This national report will use the information on the District to illustrate how poverty and incarceration are interrelated in complex ways.

Since 2008, spending on the Metropolitan Police Department and the Office of the Attorney General increased more than 2 percent and 11 percent respectively, while funding for schools, mental health services and housing has dropped. Research shows that investing in front-end services and programs that keep people out of the justice system is more effective at improving public safety and promoting community well-being than law enforcement and incarceration.

 “In an economic downturn like we are currently experiencing, social institutions and supports that improve life outcomes and community health are often the first to get cut, despite what we know about their ability to both improve public safety and help the most vulnerable among us,” stated Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “Inasmuch as government priorities are reflected in fiscal decisions, residents of the District should be concerned that officials are increasing spending on law enforcement at a time when crime is down, instead of sustaining people and communities.”

The report’s findings include:

  • Despite an increasing need for affordable and supportive housing for residents during tough economic times, the budget for the District’s Department of Housing was cut more than 30 percent in the last two years, with the Housing Production Trust Fund losing $42 million in 2008 to $18 million in 2010, a cut of more than 50 percent.
  • D.C. has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country; estimates of the homeless population range from 12,000 to 17,800 over the course of a year. Forty-seven percent of homeless people in D.C. are “chronically homeless.”
  • Even though D.C. Public Schools continue to struggle with achieving its goal of providing quality education to every child, spending on education in the District has fallen 17 percent ($170 million) since 2008. Research shows that states that invest more in education have lower crime rates than states that spend less.  Wards with the lowest median income and highest percentage of people of color have the lowest math and reading proficiencies and the most people without high school degrees.
  • Despite a clear need for mental health services, especially for low-income populations and at-risk children and teens, the city continues to cut funding in this area. The D.C. Department of Mental Health’s budget was cut 17 percent from 2008 to 2010. Over 5,000 D.C. children in need of mental health treatment do not receive it.
  • The Department of Parks and Recreation provides vital youth programming and maintains safe spaces for children to play. Yet funding for the Department of Parks and Recreation fell almost 20 percent from 2008 to 2010. These programs are especially valuable to children and teens whose families cannot afford private camps, classes, or after school programs.

“It’s sad but not surprising that when we cut funding for affordable housing, and refuse to make investments in needed social services, poverty increases,” says Defeat Poverty D.C. campaign director Michael Edwards. “The good news is, we’re just weeks away from an election in which our city’s leaders have an opportunity to tell us where– and with whom– they stand: Will they invest in our children and our future by ending the destructive cycles of poverty once and for all? Or will they stand idly by and do nothing as the number of people who can’t put food on their tables or pay their bills goes up?”

Additionally, of the District’s eight wards, wards 7 and 5 –  those with the highest percentages of people of color and the highest unemployment rates –  also saw the highest increase in arrests. Despite a significant decrease in crime in the District, misdemeanor arrests increased by 83 percent, with 81 percent of the arrests being for nonviolent offenses. As most of these arrests occurred in the wards with the lowest average incomes and the highest proportions of people of color, they result in communities of color being disproportionately represented in jails and prisons: while only slightly more than half (54 percent) of the District’s population is African American, 90 percent of the people under the supervision of D.C.’s Department of Correction are African American. African American youth make up 96 percent of those committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services; the other 4 percent were Latino youth.

“With these factors in place – lack of employment, lack of housing, low performing schools, and lots of police – these poor communities are caught in a downward spiral,” says Eduardo Ferrer of D.C. Lawyers for Youth. “In order to ensure healthier, safer communities we must invest in people and develop strategies other than incarceration to deter and address anti-social behavior.”

For healthier, stronger, and safer communities, the report proposes the following recommendations to improve D.C. policies and practices:

Focus law enforcement resources on addressing serious public safety challenges. An end to targeted policing in low-income communities and communities of color, and issuing citations instead of arrests for minor offenses, would help reduce the disproportionate representation of people of color in the criminal justice system, and better utilize public resources.

Ensure that all residents have access to quality, affordable housing. As stable, affordable housing is the foundation for education, employment, and access to other social programs and services, people in such living environments are better able to make investments in themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods.

Ensure that all children have access to quality public education in their neighborhood. Quality education, especially for students from low-income families, improves public safety and overall prosperity.

Create opportunities for all residents to engage in significant employment, and increase job skills through training programs. People with more employment opportunities and earning potential would be better able to make other investments in their communities, their families, and themselves.

Ensure that all people have access to health care, mental health care, and substance abuse treatment in their communities. People who are healthy and have access to treatment are less likely to become involved in the justice system and more likely to have an improved quality of life.

Create more opportunities for youth to be involved in positive activities during after-school time and throughout the summer. After-school and summer time activities, mentoring programs, and employment increase a youth’s academic, social, and emotional well-being and reduce the risk of involvement in illegal behaviors.

Ensure that all community members – especially those living in low-income neighborhoods – have access to affordable public transportation options. Affordable transportation enables people to access jobs and services that may not be available in their community, improving their quality of life and public safety.

“It is our hope that this brief encourages conversations between policymakers, community members and advocates,” said Velázquez. “Everyone in D.C. has a stake in reducing both poverty and justice-involvement for those who live here, and improving community well-being in every Ward of the District.” 

For additional information, please contact LaWanda Johnson at (202) 558-7974 x308 or [email protected], or Adam Ratliff at (202) 558-7974 x 306, [email protected]. For more on JPI’s research, please visit our website at

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to reducing society’s use of incarceration and promoting just and effective social policies.