As the homicide rate hits a record high in Washington D.C. the city elects a convicted murderer to public office in a unique election featuring all inmate candidates. The freshly elected public official, Joel Caston, has been in prison 26 years and is currently incarcerated at the District of Columbia Jail. In 1996 Caston was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder for ambushing and killing a man in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood. Court records obtained by Judicial Watch indicate that a 2016 appeal was denied. In the document, Caston’s attorneys name the victim, which is not common practice today. Court records also reveal a “speed loader”—a device used to rapidly load ammunition into a firearm—was found by police under Caston’s mattress after the shooting. It contained six rounds of .44 caliber ammunition as well as additional rounds of ammo.
Now Caston is a commissioner on D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), which advises the D.C. Council and other local government entities involving matters ranging from liquor license applications to public safety. Commissioners serve two-year terms and are elected in even-numbered years. The ANC was established to bring “government closer to the people, and to bring the people closer to government,” according to its website. Caston was chosen by voters to represent Ward 7, one of D.C.’s most crime-infested areas. It is represented by Councilman Vince Gray, an ex-D.C. mayor who was embroiled in a campaign finance scandal. The Ward 7 ANC seat has never been occupied and D.C. officials conducted an unprecedented election earlier this month to fill the post. All five candidates and the majority of voters they courted are incarcerated at the same prison with Caston, according to a local news report.
Last year the D.C. Council passed legislation allowing incarcerated convicted felons to vote. Besides D.C. only two states—Maine and Vermont—let imprisoned criminals cast ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. After the measure was enacted in D.C., a group of commissioners and a nonprofit called Neighbors for Justice launched an effort to fill the empty ANC seat and pressure the local Department of Corrections to notify inmates they qualified to run for the post. Neighbors for Justice was founded in August 2020 by residents near the D.C. prison who want to support “neighbors at the jail during COVID and beyond.” The group offered all the felon candidates a forum to deliver their campaign message from their cell clad in orange prison uniforms. In the promotional campaign videos Caston is the only candidate who is not wearing the orange uniform. Instead, he appears in a white sweatshirt with a logo that reads “credible messenger.” In the short segment Caston says “my platform would be used to restore the dignity of incarcerated people that we would no longer be judged by our worst mistake and establish equality for both the male and the female population that has often been overlooked inside this space.”
Caston will be issued a laptop or tablet, an electronic mail account, and a workspace in the prison where he can dedicate eight hours a day to his duties as commissioner, the founder of Neighbors for Justice said in a local newspaper article. “It’s not just about a historic election, with a first-ever ANC commissioner who is incarcerated,” said Julie Johnson, the group’s founder. “It’s about giving a voice and visibility to a population that is unseen.” In the same story Caston says that he feels “presidential” after winning the election. On its website Neighbors for Justice congratulates Caston, writing that he will serve as the ward’s inaugural commissioner and confirming that the murderer received 48 of the 142 votes cast in the “historic election.” The note proudly announces that “all five candidates in this election are in residence at the DC jail.”
While they celebrate the election triumph of a convicted murderer, homicides in D.C. are on pace to shatter records. Last year the rate hit a 16-year high and in 2021 it is expected to be worse, according to Metropolitan Police Department data. The figures show homicides are already up 13% from last year. A few months ago, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared that gun violence is a public health crisis. Weeks later she clumped her city’s pervasive gun violence with the COVID-19 pandemic, saying this in a statement: “Many communities across the nation, including Washington, DC, continue to be burdened by two simultaneous public health emergencies. The first is the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit our Black and Latino communities the hardest. The second is the gun-related violence that continues to devastate many of those same communities. Even in 2020, when much of the country shut down for weeks at a time, deaths from gun violence reached historic levels.”