D.C. Council member John Ray yesterday introduced a bill designed to relieve overcrowding in the D.C. jail by reducing prison sentences for nonviolent criminals.
The legislation would enable the mayor to declare a state of emergency in the jail whenever the inmate population exceeded capacity for 30 days, and automatically trigger a 90-day advancement of the parole eligibility date for all prisoners except those serving life terms and mandatory minimum sentences.
More than 2,300 inmates are currently confined at the jail which was designed to house 1,355.
Last week, U.S. District Court Senior Judge William B. Bryant threatened to hold Mayor Barry and city corrections officials in contempt of court if persistent overcrowding continued.
"This bill gives us opportunity to deal with overcrowding problems without violating present laws and basic rules," Ray said at a press conference yesterday.
"It is an emergency measure, but it will be effective if we adopt it and deal with the emergency situation that we face from time to time."
He stressed that the bill would not result in the automatic release of any inmates and does not imply altering the present criteria for granting or denying parole.
"The act does not in any way have anything to do with reducing sentences," he said.
Last year, Ray was the prime mover behind a mandatory minimum sentencing initiative that went into effect this week.
Law enforcement officials have expressed concern that the measure could lead to a dramatic increase in the jail's already overcrowded population.
Ray, however, has argued that while the new law might initially mean an increase, the number of inmates will eventually decrease because the law will have a deterrent effect on crime.
Ray said that a long-term solution to the overcrowding can be acheived only through such actions as expanding training programs, increasing the number of guards, accelerating court trials and building more prison facilities.
He said that the proposed legislation probably will come to the council for consideration in September.