A Guide to Criminal Justice in Washington, D.C.
Numerous agencies are directly involved in crime and justice matters in the District of Columbia. Criminal justice functions in the District of Columbia are divided between local and federal agencies, in a way that is unique.
Much of the federal role involves functions that are carried out by state agencies elsewhere. In other jurisdictions, criminal justice functions are generally split between local (city or county) agencies and state agencies. In Washington, D.C., many of the functions that are normally the responsibility of states were brought under federal responsibility with The D.C. Revitalization Act of 1997. These included pretrial services, defender services, Superior Court, prison, community supervision, and parole. (See General Accounting Office, D.C. Criminal Justice System: Better Coordination Needed Among Participating Agencies, March 2001.)
The figure below shows the major criminal and juvenile justice agencies operating in the District of Columbia, and whether each is a local or federal agency.
Following the figure, each major agency in the system is briefly described, and links are provided for further information.
Adult Criminal Justice
The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC) is the primary law enforcement agency for the District of Columbia. The District is divided into seven police districts lead by a district commander. Each district is divided further into police service areas (PSAs), which were developed as part of MPDC’s implementation of a community policing standard. Each PSA has at least 20 officers assigned to it, and additional officers are deployed to areas experiencing more crime. MPDC is located within the executive branch of government. MPDC Research and Reports
The District of Columbia Housing Authority is an independent agency that manages and provides subsidized public housing for low-income, elderly, and disabled District Residents. Its Office of Public Safety (OPS) is a fully operational police force positioned at fixed security stations in the District’s public housing developments. OPS officers conduct security patrols throughout the housing developments and have full jurisdiction to issue citations, make arrests, and execute any order of the District of Columbia. OPS is located within the executive branch of government, under the jurisdiction of the Mayor of the District of Columbia.
Office of Police Complaints (OPC) provides the public with an independent and impartial forum for the investigation and timely resolution of police misconduct complaints filed against Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC) and District of Columbia Housing Authority Office of Public Safety officers. OPC has the authority to investigate various complaints, including harassment, the use of unnecessary or excessive force, discriminatory treatment, and the use of insulting, demeaning, or humiliating language or conduct. OPC is an independent office in the District of Columbia, introduced by the District of Columbia Council, signed by the Mayor of the District of Columbia, and approved by both Houses of the U.S. Congress. OPC Research and Reports
The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) conducts all legal business related to suits instituted by and against the government of the District of Columbia. The Attorney General prosecutes and defends civil litigation, and prosecutes certain violations of criminal law, including all juvenile criminal cases, traffic infractions, and adult misdemeanor cases in the D.C. Superior Court. It also represents the District in child abuse and neglect cases and represents victims of domestic violence. In addition, the OAG prosecutes all civil commitment proceedings, drafts and reviews proposed District legislation and rulemaking, and enforces the District’s regulatory laws. OAG is located within the executive branch of government.
The District of Columbia Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission is an independent body established by the Council of the District of Columbia to implement, monitor, and support the District’s voluntary sentencing guidelines, which are designed to promote fair and consistent sentencing policies, to increase public understanding of sentencing policies and practices, to evaluate the effectiveness of the guidelines system to recommend changes based on sentencing and corrections practice and research, to analyze the District of Columbia’s criminal code and administration of current criminal laws, and to propose reforms in the criminal code to create a uniform and coherent body of criminal law in the District of Columbia. Commission Research and Reports
The mission of the Department of Corrections (DOC) is to provide a safe, secure, orderly, and humane environment for the confinement of pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates, while affording those in custody meaningful rehabilitative opportunities that will assist them to constructively re-integrate into the community. District misdemeanants sentenced to imprisonment are confined by the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DOC) at the Central Detention Facility, also known as the D.C. Jail. Individuals convicted of felony crimes in the District of Columbia, however, are transferred into the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. District inmates are also housed at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) administered by the Corrections Corporation of America in Southeast, Washington, D.C. This facility is operated under an exclusive contract to the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. The department has contracts with four private and independently operated halfway houses; the US District Court for the District and the Superior Court of the district place pretrial offenders and sentenced misdemeanants in halfway houses as an alternative to incarceration. DOC Research and Reports
The Office on Ex-Offender Affairs (OEOA) provides services, resources, and information to formerly incarcerated Washington, D.C. residents trying to reintegrate into the community. To accomplish this, OEOA provides advocacy, planning, and counseling for these individuals to increase their ability to contribute to the social, political, and economic development of themselves, their families, and the community.
Office of Victims Services (OVS) is responsible for coordinating and supporting victim services within the District by working with D.C. government agencies and community-based organizations to develop, expand, and improve services provided to victims of violent crime. OVS also provides information and recommendations to the mayor regarding victims’ needs and the best practices for meeting those needs. OVS Research and Reports
Within the judicial branch of government, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia handles all trial matters, including civil, criminal, family court, probate, tax, landlord-tenant, small claims, and traffic local to the District of Columbia. The Superior Court consists of a chief judge and 62 trial judges. The court is assisted by 25 magistrate judges as well as retired judges who have been recommended and approved as senior judges. It is located within the judicial branch of government, and all Superior Court judges are nominated to the president of the United States for appointment by the Judicial Nomination Committee (JNC). The JNC, an independent agency, also appoints the chief judge of the Superior Court, a position currently held by Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield. Superior Court Research and Reports
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is the court of last resort in the District of Columbia, equivalent to a state supreme court. As the highest court for the District of Columbia, the Court of Appeals is authorized to review all final orders, judgments, and specified interlocutory orders of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The court also has jurisdiction to review decisions of administrative agencies, boards, and commissions of the District of Columbia government, as well as to answer questions of law certified by federal and state appellate courts. The court consists of a chief judge and eight associate judges. The court is assisted by retired judges who have been recommended and approved as senior judges. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is located within the judicial branch of government, and all appeals court judges are nominated to the president of the United States for appointment by the Judicial Nomination Committee (JNC). The JNC also appoints the chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, a position currently held by Chief Judge Eric T. Washington. DC Court of Appeals Research and Reports
The Joint Committee on Judicial Administration in the District of Columbia is the policymaking body for the District of Columbia Courts. Its responsibilities include general personnel policies, accounts and auditing, procurement and disbursement, development and coordination of statistics and management information systems and reports, and submission of the annual budget. Five judges serve on the Joint Committee: the chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, who is the chair; the chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; an associate judge of the Court of Appeals; and two associate judges of the Superior Court. Joint Committee Research and Reports
The Office of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia is responsible not only for the prosecution of all federal crimes, but also for the prosecution of all serious local crime committed by adults in the District of Columbia. In addition, the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia represents the Unites States and its departments and agencies in civil proceedings filed in federal court in the District of Columbia. Thus, United States Attorneys serve as both the federal prosecutor and the local District Attorney in Washington, D.C.
In the District of Columbia, the Public Defender Service (PDS) and the Washington, D.C. courts share the responsibility for providing constitutionally mandated legal representation to people who cannot pay for their own attorney. PDS attorneys also handle criminal appeals, almost all parole revocation hearings, most drug court sanction hearings, and represent individuals facing involuntary commitment in the mental health system, children with special education needs facing delinquency charges, and clients in civil proceedings that were triggered by their criminal charges or their incarceration. PDS is a federally-funded, independent organization, governed by an eleven-member Board of Trustees. PDS Research and Reports
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Justice that houses offenders convicted of violating federal laws. As of 1997, individuals convicted of felonies in the District of Columbia and sentenced to imprisonment are released into the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Prior to this, individuals convicted of felony crimes were formerly housed at the Lorton Correctional Complex in Lorton, Virginia. Misdemeanants remain under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. BOP Research and Reports
Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) is a federal agency that provides supervision to District offenders released into the community. Approximately 80 percent of charged individuals are released into the community before trial and 70 percent of convicted offenders serve some portion of their sentence in the community. In order to supervise these 15,000 individuals on probation, parole, or supervised release, CSOSA coordinates efforts with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Parole Commission. CSOSA Research and Reports
The District of Columbia Pretrial Services Agency (PSA) is an independent federal entity within the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA). PSA serves two core functions: assembling and presenting arrestee information to presiding judges, aiding their decisions regarding flight and public safety risks posed by defendants, and second, supervising defendants who are released before trial. If released, PSA supervision may include contact, drug testing, curfew, and substance-abuse treatment.
The U.S. Parole Commission has the responsibility for granting or denying parole, and upon a decision to grant parole, for making determinations regarding the initial conditions of supervision. It is also responsible for modifying the conditions of supervision for changed circumstances, discharging offenders early from active supervision, issuing warrants or summons for parole violations, and revoking release for such offenders. Because the Federal Bureau of Prisons has jurisdiction for individuals convicted of felony crimes in the District of Columbia, the U.S. Parole Commission also has the responsibility for granting or denying parole to District of Columbia Code offenders. After a decision for parole release into the community, individuals are supervised by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) and United States Probation Officers. Commission Research and Reports
Note: Law enforcement agencies are described above under Adult Criminal Justice.
The Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) is the District of Columbia public agency that protects child victims, and children at risk, of abuse or neglect. CFSA provides child protection and placement service and connects families to such services as counseling, parenting classes, housing and child care assistance, and substance abuse treatment. CFSA also investigates reports of child abuse and neglect in the District. CFSA Research and Reports
The District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) is the District’s cabinet-level juvenile justice agency. It administers detention, commitment, and aftercare services for youth held under its care in its facilities or residing in the Washington, D.C. community. After the District of Columbia Superior Court adjudicates individuals to DYRS supervision, DYRS has the sole authority to direct their placement, treatment, and release into the community.
The mission of the Department of Human Services (DHS) is to coordinate and provide a range of services that collectively create the enabling conditions for economic and socially challenged residents of the District of Columbia to enhance their quality of life and achieve greater degrees of self-sufficiency. While providing services to both adults and juveniles, DHS recently launched a service intervention program to prevent the formalization of status offenders (status offenses are activities by juveniles that are illegal because of their age at the time of the activity). The Persons in Need of Supervision (PINS) diversion program is being launched to bring much needed reform to the District’s status offender system by creating a social-service oriented, single point of entry system to prevent status offenders and their families from entering the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. DHS Research and Reports
The Family Court–Court Social Services Division (CSS) serves as the juvenile probation system for the District of Columbia, providing court supervision and court-supervised alternatives to incarceration, as well as offering supportive social services to youth whose problems bring them within its purview. It is responsible for providing services to juveniles under age 18 charged with delinquency and status offenses and their families, from initial court contact until the child ends probation or is committed to the District of Columbia Department of Human Services. CSS Research and Reports
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) is an independent agency collaboration among District of Columbia and federal criminal justice agencies and individuals to serve as the forum for identifying solutions, proposing actions, and facilitating cooperation that will improve public safety. CJCC Research and Reports