District officials plan to transfer an additional 150 prisoners from the D.C. Jail to newly renovated facilities at the Lorton Reformatory complex in Northern Virginia in an effort to further reduce overcrowding.
The transfer plan, along with a number of other potentially sweeping proposals to relieve jail overcrowding, is contained in a report submitted last night by city officials to U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant, who had threatened to cite Mayor Marion Barry and other District officials for contempt of court if conditions at the jail were not improved. Bryant has set a hearing on the state of the jail for Aug. 9.
The report, written by D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers, contends the city has complied with Bryant's orders to maintain adequate living conditions for jail inmates and that measures for assuring future compliance are in the offing.
Included in the report are proposals that would:
* Allow the mayor to expand the size of the city's parole board so that the panel can hear more cases and speed up inmate releases.
* Give the mayor emergency powers to release inmates before their first parole eligibility date when corrections facilities become overcrowded.
* Reduce maximum sentences for some misdemeanor crimes from one year to 90 days so that defendants would no longer have the right to demand jury trials.
* Change rules in D.C. Superior Court so that cases involving defendants held in the jail are heard more quickly.
* Establish sentencing guidelines and alternatives for judges on the court so that fewer convicted persons receive prison terms.
* Keep judges better apprised of jail conditions so that they can rule accordingly when setting bonds in new cases.
* Change city laws so that sentences can be reduced at the request of the parole board or other officials in the justice system.
* Move some criminal cases from the Superior Court to U.S. District Court here.
City corrections officials had already transferred about 450 inmates from D.C. Jail to Lorton during the past two weeks. The additional 150 transfers, scheduled to take place within a week, would bring the total jail population below 2,000.
As of yesterday morning, about 2,020 prisoners were housed there, although the jail was built to hold only 1,355. Before the transfers began, more than 2,400 inmates were living at the jail, most housed two in each cell, or sleeping in recreation rooms and other areas.
Corrections officials said they had decided on the earlier transfers some time ago, but that they started them ahead of schedule on July 22after inmates caused several disturbances at the jail, including one in which a number of mattress fires spread smoke through several cellblocks and forced the evacuation of about 800 inmates to a recreation yard.
But the busloads of new inmates sent to the Lorton complex in Fairfax County raised the ire of residents there, and some county officials threatened to file suit against the District.
The Fairfax Board of Supervisors rejected that idea, however, after being informed by the county attorney that Fairfax residents must be placed in actual jeopardy before "a credible court case could be made." Board Chairman John F. Herrity said at the time that the county was nevertheless prepared to "move quickly and promptly to institute whatever legal action is necessary" if any escapes or uprisings threatened residents near the prison.
The filing of Rogers' report followed meetings last week between Mayor Barry and top officials of Superior Court, the U.S. attorney's office and the D.C. corrections and police departments.
The report maintains that Barry "has re-affirmed his determination that a comprehensive approach involving all elements of the criminal justice system is essential to address the overcrowding problem successfully."
Last year, Bryant permitted the city to place inmates at the jail two to a cell in order to relieve overcrowding at Lorton, where, Bryant ruled, conditions violated prisoners' constitutional rights. Under rules he issued at the time, however, no prisoner was to be double-celled for more than 12 hours at a time or more than 30 consecutive days.
Last month, he threatened to hold city officials in contempt when lawyers for the inmates complained that those conditions were being ignored on a wholesale basis.
In her report, Rogers said it was impossible from the outset to comply fully with Bryant's rules because of the sheer numbers of inmates at the jail. Nevertheless, she said in the report, corrections officials sought to comply by having inmates sign forms saying that they consented to being double-celled rather than being housed in recreation rooms and other makeshift facilities.
Rogers acknowledges in the report that jail records of the time prisoners spend out of their cells, as required under the court rules, have been poorly kept. Corrections officials are seeking ways to remedy that problem, the report states.
The report notes further that Barry has also sought to comply with Bryant's orders by increasing the corrections department budget. That budget has doubled in the last five years, from $50 million in 1979 to $102 million in the current budget. The U.S. Senate, under Barry's urging, recently approved an additional $22 million for more prison space and guards, and present plans call for an increase of 100 staff positions at the jail.
The 150 additional inmates to be moved to Lorton are described as sentenced misdemeanants who will be housed under minimum custody conditions in a facility scheduled for final completion in November.
The jail originally was intended to house defendants awaiting trial or misdemeanants serving their sentences. Until recently, however, as many as 700 sentenced felons also were being held there because of overcrowding at Lorton.
According to Rogers' report, a cell block capable of holding 80 residents at Lorton's maximum security facility will be ready for occupancy by the end of the month.
If implemented, the proposals contained in the report would address several problems voiced by judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers. For instance, judges and officials in the U.S. attorney's office have urged the City Council for years to reduce penalties for misdemeanors such as petty theft and drug possession from one year to 90 days to reduce the number of jury trials the court must conduct.
A persistent backlog of cases pending in the court has resulted in delays of more than a year for felony cases and eight months for misdemeanors. Those delays mean that some defendants spend months, sometimes more than a year, in jail awaiting trial. City leaders, fearing a public perception that they might be treating crime lightly, have resisted such measures except for crimes such as shoplifting and drunk driving.
Barry administration officials as well as some City Council members have contended that judges send too many people to prison who don't belong there and who could just as well be sentenced to community service work, work release programs or other alternatives.
Judges have countered by saying that there aren't enough such alternatives and that those that do exist are inadequately funded by the city.
Additional parole board members could assuage the doubts of many officials who say that agency is understaffed and operates too slowly. At present, many inmates are not even considered for parole until months past their first eligibility date simply because the parole board and its staff can't get around to hearing their cases.