When Lorton inmate Elroy Lewis, who is serving a life sentence for murder, told members of the D.C. Law Revision Commission yesterday why he opposes laws that would eliminate parole, he spoke with the sincerity and emotion of a preacher.
"Elimination . . . of the D.C. Parole Board to me deprives a (prisoner) of hope . . . striving for something . . .," Lewis told the commissioners, who met with about 50 Lorton inmates in the Prison's dimly lit chapel to discuss proposed changes in the city criminal code.
Among such changes would be a plan for fixed prison terms with no chance of parole.
"To give the inmate a definite sentence, the government goes into just warehousing the inmates," said Lewis, who has been imprisoned for the last 12 years, including 9 years at Lorton.
If a prisoner knows exactly when he is going to be released, Lewis said, the incentive for rehabilitation will be gone "because when that particular (release) day comes . . . I'm going home regardless . . ."
Not all the inmates who attended yesterday's three-hour hearing agreed with Lewis.
"I'd like to write them (the parole board) right off the books," said Joseph Joyner, 33, serving a life sentence for murder and robbery. "I don't see what purpose they serve other than to harrass residents' after they are released from prison.
Joyner is president of a Lorton prison group called Lifers for Prison Reform, which he said has been studying closely the commission's proposals.
The commission's draft for an overhaul of the city's sentencing procedures includes provisions that would have judges determine the "character" of a fixed sentence according to a set of guidelines that would be set out in the code. Also included would be a procedure whereby offenders could appeal sentences to a three-judge panel of D.C. Superior Court.
Both the sentencing plan and an earlier proposal to redefine a set of crimes to be included in a new basic criminal code are subject to congressional approval before they can become law.
The hearing at the Lorton chapel was attended by 7 of the 19 members of the commission, which is composed of lawyers and community representatives. Inmates who filled the pews and gave their opinions were there by "invitation of the Lifers.
Overall, inmates said their greatest concern is the wide level of discretion exercised by Superior Court judges, who now can sentence an offender to probation, a minimum and a maximum term, or to life in prison, depending on the crime.
The proposed changes would attempt to eliminate variations in sentences by setting fixed terms, such as 20 years for homicide, but allowing the judge to decide how much of, that time should be spent in prison or on some type of supervised release.
The judge's decision would be based on the commission's proposed sentencing guidelines. Inmates told the members, however, that they objected to a provision in the draft report that would allow the judges, if they felt it necessary, to ignore those guidelines.
Several inmates expressed concern about prisoners now serving lengthy minimum terms and asked the commission to consider making the new laws retroactive. Commission chairman Stephen Danzansky told the inmates that the commission "will have to deal with that very tough issue" while it continues to examine its code proposals.
While some inmates favored eliminating the uncertainties and arbitrary decisions attributed to parole boards, they also said the concept of rehabilitation in prison should not be abandoned through a system of fixed prison terms.