Sparked by heightened community fears and a rare public outcry from Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, D.C. City Council members are scrambling to outdo each other in taking the hardest line against criminals.
The council begins its first substantive meeting of the year today and faces a virtual laundry list of tough new anticrime proposals in the wake of recent sharp rises in the number of crimes being committed in the city. In some cases, the proposals mark a clear departure from the traditional liberal positions taken by most council members.
This new tough-on-crime sentiment has set the stage for sharp political infighting on the council on one of the most sensitive issues of the year. While several members are clamoring for a crime crackdown, David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), the chairman of the Council's Judiciary Committee, still is adhering to a liberal stance -- supporting rehabilitation of criminals and opposing mandatory sentences for specific crimes.
Clarke said yesterday that he wants to deal with all the related crime issues in his package of revised criminal code legislation expected to be made public later this week. As chairman of the committee that overseas all crime-related bills, he has the power to decide which issues to hold hearings on and which bills to ignore.
Several council members proposing their own crime legislation have said they hoped the recent heightened public concern over crime and the use of handguns by criminals will force Clarke's hand. But Clarke said: "What's happening now is that there's a great deal of hysteria about crime. I'm not going to bend to hysteria."
The tough-on-crime attitude comes after a year of a record number of homicides, burglaries and robberies in Washington, a crime wave that has led many residents to band into neighborhood "crime watch" clubs and reclal President Nixon's characterization of Washington as the "crime capital" of the nation.
Burger, in an unusual and vehement attack on crime in a speech Sunday, said that Washington in 1980 "had more criminal homicides than Sweden and Denmark combined," even though those two countries together have a population of more than 12 million people, compared with fewer than 650,000 in the District.
Burger criticized past liberal policies for giving too much protection to the criminal and not enough to the victim. At a press conference yesterday, Council Chairman Arrington Dixon moved to associate himself with Burger's remarks. Dixon, who has introduced a bill to provide compensation for crime victims, used the occasion to prod Clarke into moving quickly on anticrime bills.
Two other council members, John Ray (D-At Large) and Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), have both proposed bills for stiffer mandatory penalties for gun-related crimes. H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), the council's newest member, says he will hold hearings later this month on crime in his ward. Earlier, two more council members, Jerry A. Moore Jr. (R-At Large) and William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), proposed a ban on the sale of drug paraphernalia, citing drugs as a major cause of crime.
Council Chairman Pro Tempore Nadine p. Winter (D-Ward 6), joined the anticrime chorus yesterday, asking for stricter penalties for crimes committed by persons on pretrial release.
Some political observers said that this anticrime attitude could prove to be an early prelude to next year's elections, as various contenders for higher office try for the upper hand by being the first and the toughest to deal with what has become a growing community concern. "I'm sure there'll be a lot of anticrime candidates in 1982," said Ray.
Ray said that although the number of homicides have been high in the District for some time, the recent murder of Washington cardiologist Michael Halberstam "just brought attention to it."