D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) yesterday proposed creating a commission to seek sites for a possible new jail within the District in order to relieve overcrowding at the existing D.C. Jail.
Crawford said the commissioners should look for sites where a jail could be constructed, or for existing buildings that could be renovated as a jail, as well as reviewing the possibility of expanding the existing facility.
He said overcrowding is forcing the city to consider alternative locations for inmates and that District residents would prefer one site rather than several "mini-jails called halfway houses."
Crawford added that he anticipates opposition from some council members who favor placing inmates in community facilities.
Residents of the District "do not want any more neighborhood facilities disrupting the tranquility of their area," he said.
Seven of the 12 other council members cosponsored Crawford's bill to create the commission.
Some of the council members said that they expect strong opposition from any communities that may be considered as possible sites for a new jail.
Council Chairman David A. Clarke and Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), chairman of the council's judiciary committee, said that yet another prison may not be the answer to overcrowding.
"A new facility would fill up and be overcrowded immediately," said Clarke. "A lot of questions need to be looked at, as to who is in jail and if they are there for the purpose that it the D.C. Jail was built."
Rolark, who stressed that she had not seen Crawford's bill, said that there are a number of bills dealing with sentencing and parole guidelines before her committee that, if passed, "would result in diminishing the prison population."
She declined to comment on what priority Crawford's bill might have if it were referred to her committee.
The D.C. Jail, at 19th and D streets SE, was built to house 1,355 inmates awaiting trial or sentenced for misdemeanors. Yesterday, 2,102 inmates were being held at the jail.
Due to a lack of space, 271 of the inmates are assigned, dormitory-style, to dayrooms and gymnasiums designed as recreation areas, said Leroy Anderson, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
Overcrowding in the D.C. Jail has been a controversial issue for a number of years.
In July, 450 of the inmates were transferred to Lorton Reformatory after a major disturbance at the jail during which its inmates had demonstrated against the crowded conditions at the jail.
In September, U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant found Mayor Marion Barry and two D.C. Department of Corrections officials in contempt of court and ordered them to pay a fine of $50,000 for failing to comply with an earlier order to reduce overcrowding at the jail.
Bryant said that he would rescind the penalties, including a separate $1,000-a-day fine, if for six months the District complied with his order not to hold pretrial inmates crowded two each in cells designed for one.
John Suda, deputy corporation counsel for the city, said that the District is in compliance with Bryant's order to reduce overcrowding for pretrial inmates.
A joint hearing will be held Nov. 1 on the case that led to the contempt citation and another case involving the effects of housing inmates in areas designed for other purposes.
If Crawford's proposed legislation were adopted, a 15-member commission would have 180 days in which to make recommendations to the City Council and the mayor.
Eleven of the commission members would be appointed by the mayor, with the council's advice and consent.
The other four members of the commission would be appointed by the council chairman and the chairman of the council's judiciary committee.
In addition to recommending sites for a new jail, the commission would be required to determine the cost of the proposed facility and recommend how many inmates it should house, as well as whether its population should include female prisoners. The commission also would be expected to recommend rehabilitation programs.
Council members who support Crawford's proposal said that the time has come for the council to seriously consider what to do about overcrowding in the city's jail.
"The time may never be right, but the need seems to be there," said John Wilson (D-Ward 2), who is chairman of the council's finance and revenue committee.
"We need to come up with the money to construct a new jail ," Wilson said. "We may be in compliance now, but how long would we be in compliance is the question.
"The D.C. Jail was obsolete the day it was opened, and it is obsolete now."