Ethel Onley believes the corrections department report suggesting that burglary, weapon offenses and drug use be reclassified as nondangerous crimes and that the offenders be allowed to remain in the community is very scary and very wrong.
Onley, president of the Central North East Civic Association, said yesterday that anyone who has faced a gun, suffered a burglary or knows of drug abuse would call these dangerous crimes.
"Sgt. Joseph Cournoyer was slain near here, and he was dealing with a burglary," Onley said, referring to the D.C. police sergeant killed by a burglary suspect two weeks ago. "We have found that the burglars in this neighborhood are bolder now and are operating in the daytime. This proposal doesn't even consider the victim. I think the mayor is all wrong on this one."
Many other civic leaders shared Onley's view that the ideas in the report are bad.
The Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, said he believes that if the report's ideas are accepted, residents of the city may decide they need to carry guns to protect themselves from a system that doesn't punish the street criminal.
"This proposal shows a careless disregard for the victim," he said. "It would only encourage the criminal, and places the victim in double jeopardy. If we don't jail the criminal, it suggests that potential crime victims should carry guns."
Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, founder of the Bible Way Church, said he also opposes the report's suggestions.
"I think it would be tragic to release those lawbreakers," said Williams. "It would be like running up the white flag of defeat. It would be like saying we surrender to the criminals. Burglaries are a serious violation of law. We would be giving the wrong signal to the criminals. We would be telling them to go ahead and get out your burglary tools because nothing will happen to you."
Several community leaders cited recent crimes in their neighborhoods that made them believe that reclassifying those crimes would work against the best interests of residents.
Ibrahim Mumin, executive director of Shaw Project Area Committee, called the report's suggestions a quick fix for a complex problem. He recalled the long struggle he and his neighbors went through to put a local drug dealer in jail.
"Because someone doesn't have a prior record doesn't mean they don't have an extensive arrest record," he said. "A drug dealer in my neighborhood had many arrests over a long period of time but he was still on the street. When he finally got ready for trial, he pleaded guilty to one charge and he went to jail . . . . Now he would plead guilty and never go to jail. He would be eligible under this program to return to the streets."
Tom Lodge, a longtime community activist in the Logan Circle area, pointed to a double slaying in his neighborhood last year. The suspect arrested in that case had been residing in a halfway house -- one of the alternatives to prison that Mayor Marion Barry and his aides have said should be considered for some offenders.
However, some community leaders said they supported the ideas suggested by the report. Richard Glover, who also lives in the Logan Circle neighborhood and is chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that includes Logan Circle, Shaw and Chinatown, said he believes that jails don't rehabilitate people and that community service may be a better answer.
"I think this is a pretty good idea if the individuals are without a prior record and are convicted of a nonviolent crime," he said. "They should do community service. It doesn't so anyone any good to be incarcerated. By the way, my ANC includes an area with a lot of drug trafficking. I am worried that at the rate we are going, there will be more prisoners than residents in D.C.