This fall it is expected that the Senate Homeland & Government Affairs Committee led by Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) will hold a hearing, as promised last year, on the New Columbia Admission Act (aka DC statehood bill). When the hearing takes place supporters of statehood will have a compelling case on our side that statehood is the right path forward for democracy and within the framework of the Constitution. What supporters of statehood won’t have, because District leaders have not focused on it, is a plan to take back control and payment of our court and prison system which is presently paid for by all American taxpayers and run by the federal government.
Pro-statehood witnesses won’t be able to answer the $600 million question about how we’ll pay for and run our legal system because the District, to my knowledge, doesn’t have a plan in place for it. Covering the cost is the easier part of this process (though not easy) as new revenue streams will be available to the new state once congressional restrictions on how we raise revenue are lifted. If the District is serious about statehood then the legislative branch and executive branch need to create a plan on how we’d own and manage our court and prison system. If we’re serious about bringing our imprisoned sons and daughters back closer to the District so their families don’t have travel across the country to visit them we need to compel our leaders to develop a plan to create our own court and prison system. If we’re serious about reforming the criminal justice system we have the opportunity to virtually start from scratch and create a system that we want that fulfills our vision of a just and fair system that punishes, rehabilitates, educates, treats, and hopefully empowers those who commit crimes in the District.
Taking back control of our courts, the Public Defender, and the prosecutorial services will take time and effort but some of those service transfers are in many cases administrative and personnel adjustments. It is the prison system however that will be a huge logistical and cost challenge. Formerly, the District sent its prisoners to the now closed Lorton Correctional Facility in Lorton, Va., but after the Control Board takeover of the District our prison population was then dispersed to federal prison facilities around the country. How will we take back all of our prisoners from federal prisons and where will put them? Is there a space in the District to build a prison or is there a state that will allow us to do so? Will we have to reach agreement with the federal government temporarily to house our prisoners while we build a facility? These are just some of the questions that need to be asked and answered by the District’s leadership now, not later. I don’t pretend to have or know the answers to these questions but there are too many intelligent and well-intentioned people in the Wilson Building to not have at least a preliminary plan together. It’s an abdication of leadership that despite operating like a state for so long in so many ways that no one has shown the foresight and resolve to develop a plan for how we’ll create, foster, fund, and manage these important governmental functions so that we truly can be a state.
If a plan exists please tell me what it is but repeated queries to the Council on this issue have gone unanswered and one Councilmember told me bluntly that no such plan exists. This is of concern in the lead up to a hearing on statehood because one of our detractors on the Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee will surely ask us this very important $600 million question. Simply responding ‘it’ll be our problem after statehood’ isn’t enough. It’s time for the District to get serious not just about seeking the full privileges and rights associated with being a state but also embracing the full responsibilities of being a state. We should not look at this as an impediment to statehood, instead we should treat it as an awesome opportunity to reclaim and create anew our own full-fledged judicial branch of government that serves as a national model for the administration of justice.