Originally published by The Washington Post on December 28, 2016
Written by Aaron C. Davis
SECOND-CHANCE CITY | This is part of a continuing series that examines issues related to repeat violent offenders in the District of Columbia.
Over two years, 23-year-old Steven Pugh violated almost every condition of his court-ordered probation for carrying a gun in the nation’s capital: He tested positive for PCP, was charged with assault for allegedly dragging his girlfriend across a floor and pleaded guilty to committing a robbery in Maryland. For months, he had disappeared entirely from his probation officer’s radar screen.
Still, Pugh’s probation was not revoked, sparing him from a year in jail. In August 2015, Pugh was still failing to show up for drug tests and other appointments, but his probation officer did not press for him to be locked up. The next month, a father of three in Southeast was shot and killed. Pugh was arrested fleeing the scene and later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
A version of Pugh’s case plays out frequently in the District. About 150 times a year, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency loses track of offenders it classifies as high-risk, the agency acknowledges. Several hundred additional offenders classified as lower-risk also go missing, and scores of them turn up as suspects in new crimes, according to court records.
But the problem does not stop there.
Unlike supervisory agencies in many states, CSOSA does not notify law enforcement or the public in the District about missing offenders, even when it believes an offender “has the potential to create a new victim,” as the agency wrote in court records about Pugh. Doing so, it says, would violate federal privacy laws protecting those it calls its “clients” — the absconders.
The District is the only jurisdiction in the country where Congress has made supervision of local criminals a federal responsibility. A Washington Post investigation has found that federal control has created layers of bureaucracy that make it difficult to quickly put those who violate the terms of their release back behind bars or to effectively monitor the most dangerous offenders released back into the community.
A review of hundreds of court cases and federal documents, as well as interviews with prosecutors, police, defense attorneys and criminal justice experts, shows that the District’s uniquely constructed criminal justice system often breaks down at the vulnerable point when offenders are leaving jail or prison and returning to the streets.
CSOSA (see-so-sa) does not automatically share details about its offenders’ absences with D.C. police, as many similar state or local agencies do with police in their jurisdictions, criminal justice experts say. And when offenders are caught in a serious violation, the agency has to petition the courts and the U.S. Parole Commission to revoke probation or parole, or to have a warrant issued for their arrest. Then, CSOSA must usually rely on a third federal agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, to get the offender back to the D.C. jail or prison.
About once a week, a D.C. offender under federal supervision ends up as either a victim or a suspect in a homicide investigation. Last year, nearly one out of four people charged with a killing in the District was under CSOSA supervision, while one out of five victims also was in its care, according to agency and police data.
Offenders under CSOSA’s supervision were charged with nearly 1,500 crimes of violence in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to documents submitted to Congress. In all of 2016, 836 individuals have been convicted of crimes, and that represents about 5 percent of the total under supervision, the agency said.
“It’s set up to fail people,” said Philip J. Fornaci, past director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, who now works to find jobs for returning inmates as head of the Employment Justice Center. “If it was actually a system that was geared toward rehabilitation, it wouldn’t be set up like this, and if public safety were a real concern, it wouldn’t be set up like this.”
Nancy M. Ware, director of CSOSA since 2012, said the agency first tries to give offenders every chance to succeed before it labels someone an absconder, potentially sending an offender back to jail or prison.
“Sometimes a person is in a loss of contact for several days because they have a death in their family, they have some issue with children. There are all kinds of reasons that we lose contact,” she said. “With our population, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Ware said CSOSA has made strides in coordinating with D.C. police and other law enforcement agencies, including joint home visits to high-risk offenders. She also stressed that the number of CSOSA clients linked to violent crimes in the District is a small fraction of the roughly 17,000 offenders who cycle through supervision in a given year.
Ware said that the agency conducts a “fatality review” of every killer or victim who was under CSOSA supervision but has not been able to discern a pattern to prevent future violence. She suggested that those who do return to violent crime — especially those who kill — are often beyond the help of any government agency.
“They go into a liquor store or get into an argument with somebody and, you know, take that person out,” she said. “Or they are in a crap game and get mad at each other, so they have an incident where it escalates to the point of violence.
“In some cases, it’s people who have had a history with that person and it goes way, way back,” Ware said. “Their pasts may have caught up with them.”
CSOSA did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Post seeking detailed data on recidivism.
The federal office has almost 900 employees and an annual budget of $182 million.
CSOSA was born almost two decades ago out of a dark moment in the District’s history, when the city under then-Mayor Marion Barry was tumbling toward bankruptcy. As a condition of a federal bailout, Congress took control of most of the District’s criminal justice system.
Because it is a federal agency, CSOSA does not have to report to the District’s mayor or the D.C. Council. It also does not have to answer to the Justice Department. Its director is appointed by the president to a six-year term, and Congress, which has oversight, has not called a hearing on the agency in almost four years.
CSOSA’s unique position constrains its ability to help or monitor offenders. It lacks the resources of a state or local social services agency, such as the ability to provide short-term housing placements or care in long-term mental-health facilities for those too unstable to remain in the community. A new report from the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence said that almost half of all offenders returning to D.C. from federal prisons have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.