D.C. proposal would release suspects of nonviolent misdemeanors from jail

People arrested in Washington on minor counts such as walking a dog without a leash or possessing an open container of alcohol should be immediately released and should not spend hours or even days in jail until their first court appearance, according to a proposal released Tuesday from a watchdog organization for the District’s courts.

A committee of the Council for Court Excellence is proposing a D.C. statute that would ensure that people charged with nonviolent crimes are treated as if they were paying a traffic ticket. Instead of remaining in jail until court, they could pay a fine and be released.

The proposal would not apply to people charged with a felony or domestic violence or those already on probation or parole or considered a flight risk.

Clifford Keenan, head of the committee, said the idea is to help reduce the number of cases in the courts while ensuring that people who aren’t arrested for violent crimes aren’t spending long periods locked up in jail.

For example, if a person is arrested on a misdemeanor such as urinating in public and chooses not to contest the charge, that person could pay an about $35 fine and be released as opposed to waiting in jail until a court hearing. The proposal also would require that those who can’t afford to pay the fine be released to ensure economic equity among defendants.

If adopted by the D.C. Council, the policy would also help police officers, who would spend less time writing up paperwork for arrests, Keenan said.

In 2011, the D.C. Council enacted emergency legislation repealing criminal penalties for driving with license plates more than 30 days out of date — a penalty that subjected thousands of District drivers to arrest. Outcry over the policy erupted after the arrests of a Maryland mother who was driving in the District with her child strapped in a car seat and a Navy lieutenant commander who for three hours was locked in a 2nd Police District jail cell, fingerprinted and required to submit to a mug shot after his Florida license tags had expired.

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of slain federal intern Chandra Levy.

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