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Posted at 02:23 PM ET, 03/16/2010

D.C. council debates: What's best for jail inmates?

D.C. Council members spent about 90 minutes today debating whether it is better and more humane to release inmates from the city jail during the day or during the overnight hours.

The lengthy discussion, which sparked some tense moments among members, stemmed from a proposal by Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At large) to establish new guidelines that the Department of Corrections must follow when it releases inmates between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Under Mendelson's proposal, if an inmate is released during the overnight hours, the Department of Corrections must assure that the person being released has access to housing, a ride, and "street clothing worn by citizens." If those conditions cannot be met, the inmate must be released during daylight hours.

But Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David A. Catania (I-At large), backed by Attorney General Peter Nickles, argued it would be unconstitutional to detain an inmate even a few hours longer than the sentence calls for.

"If there is a family or friend who will not take them [at night], they are held past their will and that is an unconstitutional infringement on their rights," Catania said.

Mendelson, however, countered that inmates who are released overnight do not have access to the services they need to restart their lives post-confinement.

"It is not good ... to be releasing inmates that late, because inmates typically need resources," Mendelson said. "They need housing, many of them are homeless, and they need shelter. They need access to counseling. They need access to government agencies and none of that is open late at night."

The District currently has a law that prohibits inmates from being released from the jail, located in Capitol Hill East, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. The law is largely designed to enhance public safety.

But Nickles issued an order last year instructing the Fenty administration that the law was unconstitutional, according to council members. Since then, the administration has begun releasing some inmates' overnight, including 144 so far this year, according to Mendelson.

Mendelson's bill is aimed at curtailing that practice by establishing rigorous criteria that the administration must meet before an inmate can be released overnight. For example, under Mendelson's bill, the Department of Corrections would have to transport or pay for a taxi for an inmate who is released overnight if that person does not have someone picking them up.

"Why should 100 inmates be let out after 11 or 12 o clock? That is inhumane," argued Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a supporter of Mendelson's proposal. "Many of these inmates have to figure out a change in bus routes."

But Catania and Evans, along with Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), countered the city could be sued by inmates if they are kept an extra day in jail because they city cannot guarantee a safe overnight release.

"Here we have before us the attorney general, our chief law enforcement officer, who is telling us this bill is unconstitutional," said Graham, referring to a letter from Nickles. "A certain amount of due deference has to be given to our D.C. attorney general."

Mendelson's proposal was eventually approved overwhelmingly, but not before council members sparred over whether the American Civil Liberties Union supports or opposes the bill, underscoring the influence that organization has with the council.

At one point, Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) suggested Catania didn't care about the welfare of inmates. Catania responded he authored a landmark bill guaranteeing inmates at the jail have access to high-quality health care.

"To the ward member of 6, I would gladly listen to any [contribution] he made to this population," Catania responded.

Barry, who was convicted on drug charges in 1991, sought to bring the discussion back to a more personal level, noting it's rare for inmates to be released during the overnight hours.

"Apparently, there is a lot of misinformation on how the jail operates," Barry said. "The release date is known well in advance. ...Its not like the department doesn't know the inmate is going to be released. In fact, the experience I have had there, they usually release people at 12, one, two, three in the afternoon."

--Tim Craig

By  |  02:23 PM ET, 03/16/2010

Categories:  Tim Craig, Tim Craig, Tim Craig

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