February 18, 2016
Updated March 10, 2016: On March 1, 2016, the NEAR Act passed its second city council vote unamended. The bill will become law pending Mayor Muriel Bowser's signature.
On February 2, 2016, the D.C. City Council cleared the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act (B. 21-0360) in the first of two council votes. Introduced by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, the NEAR Act received enthusiastic support from local youth advocacy groups, including D.C. Lawyers for Youth (DCLY), an NJJN member. If passed, the NEAR Act would take significant steps to reframe the District’s approach to violence prevention as one based in public health, not crime and punishment.
Most significantly, the NEAR Act would create two new D.C. government offices. The first would be the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which would identify those “at high risk” for committing violent crimes and recruit them to a program that connects them with jobs, training, counseling, and other services that seek to address the root cause of violent crime. The office’s budget would include funds to provide stipends—anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per month—for participation in the 9-month program.
“The idea behind it is that we have the means to identify the leaders in these communities—the negative leaders—and work to support them in heading in another direction,” said Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director of DCLY. “It’s saying, ‘The problem is that you need a job? Okay, we’ll help you find one. And we’ll give the support you need to help you keep it together.’”
The other new office would be the Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity, in charge of developing and implementing a public health strategy for violence prevention, using risk assessment tools to identify at-risk populations and provide them with coordinated services targeted at the root causes of violence. The office would also conduct a public education campaign on the impact of violence and strategies for diffusing and resolving conflict before violence takes place, and it would help to place counselors and social workers trained in trauma-informed care in police departments and hospital emergency rooms, to ensure that victims of violent crime have their needs addressed. Supporters of the NEAR Act also hope that addressing the needs of such victims and survivors of crime will help to reduce retaliatory violence.
Beyond the new offices, the NEAR Act creates the Community Crime Prevention Team, which pairs mental and behavioral health clinicians and outreach specialists with police officers to identify recurring issues in each police district for more informed and effective police response, as well as identifying potential improvements to police training and procedures. It also calls for an increase in data collection on police stops, frisks, and use of force incidents, and modernizes the “assault on the police officer” statute, redefining “assault on an officer” and “resisting arrest” as separate offenses—which, Okonkwo says, will have a significant impact on the District’s youth, who are frequently charged with the former, more serious, offense.
“We’d been talking to Councilmember McDuffie’s office since he got the chairmanship of the Committee of the Judiciary about the need for public health responses to juvenile justice,” said Okonkwo. “The NEAR Act sets the table for public health responses across the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In my memory, this is the first time we’ve had a bill that aims to deal with crime by looking at root causes rather than a law-enforcement-based solution, and which asks, ‘How can we solve these problems systemically and long term?’”
The D.C. Council will vote again on the NEAR Act during the March legislative session. If passed, it will then require mayoral approval before becoming law.
Photo credit: Flickr user Elvert Barnes