D.C. Statehood Would Advance Criminal Justice Reform for All
700,000 people who live in our nation’s capital lack statehood. Their statelessness, perhaps surprisingly, holds back evidence-based criminal justice reforms across our country. I should know–I was a prosecutor in D.C.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted on April 22 to reduce the size of our nation’s capital to the key federal buildings and the land surrounding them, making the rest of D.C., which would be known as Douglass Commonwealth, the 51st state. Even though D.C. residents pay more in taxes than 22 states, have a larger population than two, and serve in the military, they face taxation without representation, with no senators or members of congress. The bill would fix that.
But D.C. statehood would also benefit the area where I have focused my career: evidence-based criminal justice reform. The purpose of our criminal legal system is to create and ensure safety. Creating safety includes seriously supporting re-entry for people returning from prison, and decreasing drug addiction by treating it as a health problem. D.C. statehood is part of accomplishing these reforms.
Arizona’s federal prisons, particularly the U.S. Penitentiary Tucson, house people from D.C. who are convicted of felonies. D.C., as a district, does not have its own prison system, and people convicted are sent to federal prisons around the country, including here in Arizona. Research on reducing recidivism and improving re–entry and public safety supports keeping people in prison connected to their families and community. On the other hand, incarcerating people in Arizona, potentially unable to maintain ties with families and communities in D.C., undermines re-entry and safety. Without statehood, D.C. can neither house its incarcerated citizens, nor promote the connections crucial to helping them succeed after they serve their sentences in prison.
D.C. has also been at the forefront of reducing the harm of the war on drugs, including a highly effective needle exchange program to reduce H.I.V. in the 1990s and legalizing marijuana in 2014. Both times, Congress forbade D.C. from using its own local funds to continue operating these programs. Congress does not have this same authority over states. As Supreme Court Justice Brandeis said nearly a century ago, “[i[t is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Yet because the citizens of D.C. do not have these rights, citizens of Arizona cannot learn from their successes or failures, in order to determine what is best for our own state. Their experiences would have informed federal debates on criminal justice reform, but D.C. is excluded from Congress. That’s a setback for all Americans.
When our senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, contemplate D.C. statehood this year, criminal justice reform may not be top of mind. But D.C.’s disenfranchisement continues a standard of democracy only for some. The Americans who live in D.C. deserve statehood, and their voices and experience would benefit all of us.
Valena Beety is professor of law at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the deputy director of the Academy for Justice. She is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C. Her forthcoming book is Manifesting Justice.