The D.C. City Council informally agreed yesterday to take quick action on a congressionally backed bail revision bill, while law enforcement officials cautioned that a proposed amendment to the bill may be unconstitutional.
The bill, which would make it easier to keep repeat offenders accused of violent crimes in jail until their trials, sailed through a judiciary committee meeting Monday, just three days after U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato called on the city to "stop the revolving door" of justice he said existed here.
Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) yesterday said he would propose an amendment, sought by D'Amato but not considered by the committee, that would allow judges to impose high cash bonds to keep repeat offenders of violent crimes in jails. Wilson said his amendment also would allow judges to impose high bonds on any person accused of violent crime whom they consider dangerous.
"Nobody feels safe in this society," said Wilson yesterday as the council, meeting as a committee of the whole, agreed to place the bill on its agenda for next Tuesday. "There's a whole bunch of reasons now to release somebody on bail. What we are saying is get rid of most of those reasons."
Officials in the offices of the U.S. Attorney and the city's corporation counsel questioned whether high cash bonds were needed or constitutional.
Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph di Genova said "our preliminary consultation with legal authorities indicates there may be constitutional problems" with imposing cash bonds as a means of keeping in jail suspects who are considered dangerous.
By law, cash bonds can now only be used if judges believe a suspect is likely to flee before trial.
A corporation counsel official said Mayor Marion Barry still is preparing emergency legislation on bail revisions that he promised after meeting last week with D'Amato, who holds the city's purse strings as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee for the District of Columbia.
The official said the city is checking with the U.S. Justice Department to determine whether cash bonds could be included in the mayor's proposals.
Council Chairman Arrington Dixon relaxed the council's rules yesterday to allow the discussion of the bill and said the council would suspend its rules on Tuesday in order to bring the measure up earlier than normal.
However, Dixon said late yesterday that the judiciary committee would have to approve the measure again before Tuesday because Monday's meeting was held without 24 hours written notice and therefore violated council rules. He said the committee should act again to avoid potential legal problems.
Several city officials complained privately yesterday that D'Amato had created a politically awkward firestorm that was pushing government to act hastily on complex and longstanding judicial problems.
The committee's bill would extend from 60 days to a maximum of 90 days the period during which suspects deemed dangerous to the community may be kept in jail under pretrial detention. Suspects in first degree murder cases would not be subject to the 90-day limitation.
The bill also would allow authorities five working days, as opposed to five calendar days, to detain suspects while they determine whether they may have violated parole or probation.
Di Genova yesterday called that seemingly minor change "very important because it will enable us to take a careful look" to determine whether suspects can be held on prior charges. Prosecutors said the majority of repeat offenders have usually violated parole or probation conditions, but are often released before authorities can complete legal proceedings to keep them in jail.
An almost identical bill was rejected by the judiciary committee a year ago and its swift passage Monday was attributed to D'Amato's criticism of the city.