Key officials involved with criminal justice issues in the District expressed opposition, disbelief and outrage yesterday in reaction to a report -- sent by Mayor Marion Barry to a congressional subcommittee -- suggesting that burglary, weapons offenses and drug use may not warrant prison terms.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova called the report, prepared by the D.C. Department of Corrections, "as mind-boggling as it is mindless of the public safety which it purports to support."
The report "hints at de facto decriminalization of three major areas of the criminal law" and by doing so "devalues life and its quality," diGenova said.
"I would say they city officials have not faced up to the realities of the criminal problem," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the District, who had requested the study of the District's prison population.
Specter said the report played down the seriousness of weapons offenses and reflected "a total misunderstanding" of the offense of burglary, which he called inherently dangerous.
"I don't subscribe to what is in there the report ," said D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner, who said his department was not consulted in the preparation of the report.
The three officials commented after reading the eight-page report, which is a key step in an ongoing debate between the mayor and Capitol Hill over whether the District needs to build new prison facilities to deal with current crowding and an expected increase in the prison population.
City officials downplayed the report, saying it was preliminary and was not intended as a policy statement or proposal.
"This is just a first cut at trying to develop a profile looking at criminal history," said Shirley Wilson, director of the office of criminal justice, plans and analysis, whose office coordinated work on the report. "We don't have the authority to release 500 or 1,000 people."
The data collected in a more refined profile will be used to develop a "range of policy options," she said.
Barry, who has opposed building more prison space, has argued in the past that some prisoners may be suitable for alternative programs in the community or sentenced to make restitution rather than serve prison terms.
Law enforcement officials, including diGenova, have disagreed, saying that only serious offenders or repeat offenders get prison time now, anyway.
The report was intended to identify how many prisoners might qualify for alternatives.
Under one set of "conservative" criteria, it found 510 out of 5,947 prisoners on Jan. 26 who could be candidates for alternative sentences because they were not in jail for a "dangerous" offense, did not have a prior conviction on such an offense, did not have three prior convictions of any kind and had not violated parole or escaped.
Under "liberal" criteria -- which excluded some burglaries, weapons offenses and drug use as "dangerous" offenses -- it found 1,050 prisoners out of 5,962 on Jan. 31 who could be considered for alternative sentences.
The report noted that the department did not take into consideration several factors, such as juvenile records, original charges and prior convictions in other jurisdictions, because information was incomplete or not readily available.
Each case and its circumstances would have to be reviewed before it could be determined how many of the candidates could safely be released, it said.
Barry would not discuss the report, saying only, "No, no, no" when asked to comment and called one of his bodyguards to prevent further questioning.
DiGenova, Specter and Turner all said the report shed little light on how many persons currently in jail might be released without danger to the community because so many factors were not considered. But they pointed to the philosophy outlined in the report on burglaries, weapons offenses and drug use as unacceptable.
"This is a philosophical manifesto which deserves the most intense public scrutiny," diGenova said.
The report stated that "weapons offenses are technically victimless" and share many characteristics with regulatory violations.
"You don't just walk around with a gun for the fun of it," Turner said.
The report said "there is nothing inherently dangerous or violent" about burglaries, which it said is a property offense.
DiGenova and Specter said burglaries of all kinds are inherently dangerous, with potential for violence.
Wilson said statements in the report that "weapons offenses are technically victimless" and that "there is nothing inherently dangerous or violent" about burglaries do not reflect a city philosophy or policy.
A letter from the mayor transmitting the report said that the document "reflects a strong policy position in support of public safety."
He said the staff was directed to design the study to eliminate from consideration any offender convicted of a dangerous crime or having a history of involvement in such crimes.
"At present there is an overreliance on the sanction of incarceration in the District, and as a result our prison and jail capacities are being stretched beyond their limits," the report stated.
But Specter said that judges "aren't overly tough on sentencing to begin with." During hearings he is conducting throughout the country on career criminals, he said he is finding that "everywhere the jails are so overcrowded that judges are not sentencing dangerous criminals" to prison terms.
D.C. City Council member John Ray (D-At Large), author of the District's mandatory minimum sentencing law, said he takes "strong exceptions" to the statements on weapons offenses and burglaries.
"Once people get the impression that they can burglarize people's houses and if they get caught they won't go to jail, it will encourage people to do it more freely," and more people will be hurt by it, Ray said. "You don't want to go out and send a message that you're not going to lock people up for burglary and you're not going to lock them up for weapons [violations].