D.C. Judge Pressures City on Jail Population

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007

A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday threatened to hold Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in contempt of court for refusing to adhere to a law requiring the city to set a limit on the number of inmates who can be held in the D.C. jail.

Judge Melvin R. Wright ordered the city in August to set a cap to comply with a 2004 law meant to improve conditions and operations at the District's main jail after two stabbing deaths and other inmate violence.

The city and jail-reform advocates have been arguing for years over crowding at the Southeast Washington facility, with one outside consultant calling for a limit of 2,164 inmates. The jail yesterday held 1,907 people, but D.C. officials said they do not want to be locked into the consultant's number.

The District argued in court papers, and again yesterday in court, that Wright has no authority to force it to set a limit. Doing so, the city's attorneys argued, amounts to "inappropriate" judicial interference, essentially directing Fenty how to spend the city's money.

Wright rejected that claim, declaring: "I don't get to pick and choose what laws I am going to obey. Likewise, the District of Columbia does not have the right to choose which laws it will obey."

The judge set a deadline of Friday for the city to obey or appeal his ruling and said he recognized that he was fighting a battle that dates back for decades.

"There have been numerous judges who have come and gone, who have died, who have been unable to get the District to establish a cap," he said. "I don't want to bring the mayor in here, but what choice do I have? . . . Am I supposed to turn my head?"

Peter Nickles, Fenty's general counsel, said the District is not disregarding the law.

"We're going to file a request for an immediate appeal," he said. "I have no concern about any contempt finding against the mayor. The executive is bound to obey the law. The question is what does the law require and what time frame."

Critics have argued that too many people shoved into small spaces can result in violence and inhumane conditions. In June of 2002, a 17-year-old population cap of nearly 1,700 was lifted, and the count swelled to 2,400.

In December of the same year, a stabbing left two dead and a third seriously hurt.

More than a year later, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council hammered out an agreement requiring a new cap to be determined by an outside consultant. That number was 2,164. But in the ensuing years, city leaders have refused to set such a hard cap, and the population has often shifted above that number -- sometimes by hundreds.

Two summers ago, jail-reform advocates took the city to court for failing to comply with the law, and the fighting has continued ever since -- leading to the ruling by Wright in August. Instead of complying, however, the District, with a new mayor at the helm, is adjusting its tactics.

In a document filed with the court this week, city attorneys argued that the District had voluntarily decided to set a cap of 3,198 -- more than 1,000 inmates above the proposed cap by the outside consultant. The city argued -- as it has in the past -- that a number of other criminal justice agencies send them inmates and that numbers can fluctuate wildly.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said yesterday that he believes the city should be held in contempt. "The idea that they would come in with a number 1,000 above the range suggests a disregard for the safety of everyone at the jail, " he said.

Phil Fornaci, director, of the D.C. Prisoners' Project, which filed the suit, said the city needs to discuss alternatives to incarceration to reduce the numbers.

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