Supporters of mandatory prison terms for people convicted in Washington of using firearms in violent crimes or of trafficking in illegal drugs filed petitions bearing 22,000 names yesterday to have a citizens' initiative on the issue placed on the Sept. 14 primary ballot.
"Our citizens, men and women, are afraid to walk the streets at night," said City Council member John L. Ray (D-At Large), a candidate for mayor and head of the Citizens for Safer Streets Committee, which he formed. Offenders should know punishment is going to be "swift and certain," he said.
Ray began the referendum drive last summer after he failed to get the council to pass a similar measure. The signatures filed yesterday with the Board of Elections and Ethics far exceed the 14,442 names required to place the initiative on the ballot.
Certification of the petitions by the elections board would set the stage for a campaign debate over the fairness and effectiveness of mandatory sentencing, which has proved popular with citizens in some other jurisdictions but has received mixed reviews from law enforcement officials.
Critics, both here and elsewhere, have argued that such laws force more people into already overcrowded prisons, raise the cost of maintaining those prisons by forcing them to handle larger populations, and unfairly limit judges and prosecutors more familiar with mitigating circumstances of crime.
Ray's initiative would force judges to impose minimum sentences of five years without parole for first offenders who use a firearm to commit a violent crime and 10 years for a second conviction.
For drug offenses, the initiative would require a four-year prison term for anyone convicted of selling heroin and lesser terms for other drugs, including one-year mandatory terms for anyone convicted of selling more than $15,000 worth of marijuana.
"Poor people and minorities have been most heavily victimized" by crime, Ray said during a news conference. "We cannot tolerate the violence and the drug traffic which threatens to take over our streets where we live and the young minds we count on for the future," Ray said.
But opinion was mixed. D.C. Superior Court Judge Tim Murphy, a former prosecutor, declined to comment specifically on Ray's initiative. But he said he felt generally that mandatory sentencing "doesn't work."
Murphy said mandatory sentences "are conceptually sound, but practically are unworkable." He said such laws take away the flexibility of prosecutors. "What about the person who's never heard of the law," Murphy asked, or the person who shoots a burglar "with a gun they are not supposed to have?"
U.S. Attorney Stanley S. Harris, the city's chief prosecutor, said he had not studied the issue and could not state a position on Ray's proposal. Former U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff testified before the City Council last year against mandatory sentencing laws, arguing that they place too many constraints on prosecutors and judges.
D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., a supporter of mandatory sentencing, said yesterday he had not seen Ray's initiative and declined to comment on its specifics. But he added, "I am in favor of mandatory sentencing for violent crimes, and my opinion is the same for the illegal distribution of drugs."
Mandatory sentencing also has been endorsed by former D.C. Police Chief Burtell Jefferson, who now head's Ray's mayoral campaign committee.
Leslie Harris, executive director of the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke out against the measure yesterday. She called it "simplistic," and said she fears "people will respond to what sounds like an attractive idea."
"It's just stuffing more people in a chute that's already too small," said Rhozier (Roach) Brown Jr., executive director of Inner Voices, a prisoner and ex-offender self-help group. "It's the easy way out," Brown said, as opposed to dealing with factors he cited as root causes of crime, including high unemployment, reduced government programs and poor education.
"Mandatory sentencing will only result in more people being incarcerated," said Jerome W. Page, president of the Washington Urban League. "We prefer to see money spent on the front end--crime prevention--than the back end--prisons."
William H. Lewis, general counsel for the board of elections, said he expected the board to begin a 30-day review of Ray's petitions in April. He said the board has up to 30 days to randomly check the signatures for accuracy and must make them available for public inspection for 10 days during the review.
In addition to a minimum number of valid signatures, the board will have to certify that the petitions include the names of 5 percent of the voters in at least five of the city's eight wards. Ray said yesterday that petitions came from all eight wards but that the majority of the names were collected in Wards 5, 6 and 7.
Those wards include a large number of black, middle-class, long-time residents of the city from whom Ray has hopes of gaining support for his campaign for mayor. However, Ray has maintained the initiative was not begun as part of his campaign plan.