D.C. City Council member John L. Ray (D-At-Large), the council's principal supporter of mandatory minimum prison terms for convicted criminals, last week announced that he is beginning a campaign to collect enough signatures of registered voters to require a referendum on the issue of mandatory sentences.
A majority of the council rebuffed Ray last month when he tried to tack similiar mandatory sentences onto the city's newly enacted drug law. At a press conference last week, Ray said he would continue his almost single-handed crusade for mandatory sentences by going over the heads of his colleagues and taking his case directly to the voters.
Ray said that within three weeks he will name a citizen's committee to draft an initiative that would impose five-year mandatory minimum prison terms for dealers in hard narcotics and for person who use firearms while committing felonies.
No members of the citizens' panel have yet been named, but Ray said he probably will draw on some of the same persons who helped in his successful citywide reelection campaign last year and who could be the key workers in his possible mayoral bid next year. Ray also said that he will ask retiring Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson, a proponent of mandatory minimum sentences, to join the committee.
Ray dismissed any suggestion that the citywide initiative campaign simply would be an exploratory committee for a future "John Ray for Mayor" campaign.
"You always run the risk of that kind of criticism," he said.
Ray said that the committee will draft the language of the mandatory sentencing referendum and then collect the 14,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot. Ray added that he will begin raising money for television and radio advertisements as he takes his case to community groups, churches and business organizations over the next few months.
Ray said that a copy of the committee's fund-raising activities and expenses will be filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, as required by law.
The mandatory sentencing debate was played out in the council most recently during the discussion of the new city narcotics code. Ray then argued forcefully but futilely that mandatory minimum sentences of up to five years for drug dealers would serve as a deterrent to drug-dealing.
Ray also supports mandatory sentencing for possession of firearms during a felony. He has introduced a bill to that effect, which will be debated when the council continues discussions on the city's comprehensive criminal code revisions later this year.
The most vocal opponent of mandatory minimum sentences was council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), chairman of the council's judiciary committee, who was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff, and Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers. Neither Clarke nor ACLU Director Leslie Harris would comment on Ray's latest campaign until they see the text of his proposed initiative.
Ray's announcement won immediate support from council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), another advocate of mandatory minimum prison terms, who said she would help Ray in his effort "any way I can."