Federal prosecutors here are considering allowing a greater number of first-time criminal offenders to avoid jail by entering community service programs that previously have been reserved for those who have committed minor offenses.
Prosecutors who handle the majority of the criminal cases at D.C. Superior Court are recommending that first-time ofenders who have committed crimes such as burglarizing an unoccupied warehouse or taking an unauthorized joy ride in a car be given the chance to work for a community agency rather than going to jail.
Such offenses are currently treated as felonies punishable by up to 15 years for the warehouse burglary and five years for taking the car. But under the proposals being considered, these crimes and others would be treated as misdemeanors, where the maximum penalty is a year in jail.
The U.S. Attorney's Office now routinely allows hundreds of defendants charged with misdemeanors -- such as marijuana possession or solicitation for prostitution -- to enter so-called diversion programs to perform work in the community. But persons charged with felonies -- crimes that call for jail sentences of more than a year -- cannot now be placed in such programs and instead face trials and potential jail terms.
The proposals are being prepared by the Superior Court prosecutors at U.S. Attorney Chares F.C. Ruff's request as part of an overall office policy review. The review also covers subjects such as improving the assistance and attention given government witnesses who testify at criminal trials and providing restitution payments to victims of crime.
Ruff confirmed yesterday that the issues "were being debated without any final decison having been made."
The proposed changes come at a time when the crime rate in the District is sharply increasing. But Ruff said the changes are being considered because he thinks that many first-time defendants could benefit more from community work than from going to jail.
Ruff said the U.S. Attorney's Ofice is determining whether certain criminal offenses are being treated "at an appropriate level . . . .Are we in fact dealing with certain felonies that might be treated more appropriately as misdemeanors? Are we treating all those who would best be served by diversion through diversion or are we too limited . . .?"
Ruff declined comment on specific proposals, but some law enforcement sources said that by reducing the number of cases charged as felonies and expanding diversion to include some of these cases, more serious felony cases involving murders, rapes, robberies and armed offenses could be brought to trial more quickly.
If Riff approves the changes, several hundred of the estimated 6,000 felony cases brought each year might be reduced to misdemeanor charges and many of the defendants allowed to enter diversion programs, one source said. About 1,200 defendants of the 11,000 facing misdemeanor charges are now diverted each year under present guidelines.
Diversio allows a defendant to perform some sort of alternative public service and avoid a conviction on his or her record. To be eligible for diversion, a defendant is required to informally admit committing the offense to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The defendant then performs a minimum number of hours -- at least 40 -- of community service of enrolls in a counseling program. After six months, the case is reviewed, and the charge may be dropped if the community service or counseling has been successfully completed.
The most recent, highly publicized case that was diverted involved former representative Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.), who was charged last October with soliciting sex from a 16-year-old boy.
Prosecutors allowed Bauman to seek alcoholic rehabilitation counseling to avoid going to trial, and last month, after he successfully completed the program, the charge against him was dropped. Had Bauman been convicted on a solicitation charge, he might have been sentenced to serve up to one year in prison.
Defendants who previously have been diverted are not eligible to be diverted a second time, nor are defendants charged with violent crimes or certain drug and weapons offenses. Prosecutors also do not divert defendants with prior convictions or long arrest records, or those arrested while on parole. Felonies that are reduced to misdemeanors as the result of plea bargains are not eligible for diversion under present guidelines.
Another form of diversion under study is formalizing restitution to victims by criminals as part of a successfully completed diversion program.
The type of felony cases that would be changed to misdemeanors is still being debated among prosecutors, a source said. But prosecutors generally think crimes that do not directly involve people could be changed to misdemeanors. Prosecutors would not need any outside authority to do this.
Prosecutors also may increase the dollar limit in grand larcency cases. Grand larcency now involves taking property worth more than $100. Prosecutors want to adjust that figure for inflation to a higher figure, and thus charge a greater number of people with petit larceny, a lesser offense.