Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday his administration was not establishing policy in a report he sent to Capitol Hill suggesting that District burglars, weapons offenders and drug users now in prison might more appropriately be given penalties other than prison terms.
The mayor stressed that he is committed to the incarceration of those who commit violent crimes and repeat offenders, said his press secretary, Annette Samuels.
"Under the circumstances, with facilities throughout the country bulging, there is a need to look at alternatives," Samuels quoted the mayor as saying.
The District has a serious prison overcrowding problem and is looking for ways to relieve the situation without having to build new prison facilities. The city is under pressure from Capitol Hill and local law enforcement officials to build more prison space because of an expected rise in the prison population.
The mayor has talked of using treatment programs for drug users and finding alternative sanctions, such as community service or restitution, for some nonviolent crimes. But he has not yet outlined a program of alternatives or specified who among the current prison population might be eligible for them.
The prison report, while not a proposal or a plan, gave some clues as to who city officials are looking at as candidates for such alternatives.
The report stated that "there is nothing inherently dangerous or violent about the offense" of burglary, but city officials have since said they were talking only about certain kinds of burglaries, those committed when no one is on the property at the time.
Samuels said that someone who goes into a house but leaves without taking anything has committed one form of burglary, but where people are involved it is different.
"The burglar that comes into the house and leaves has not committed a violent crime as such," she said. "If the burglar goes into a house and shoots someone or hits them over the head, that's violent."
Some law enforcement officials, including D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner, have criticized the views expressed in the report on burglars.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova has argued that all types of burglaries are inherently dangerous, because of the potential for violence when a break-in occurs. The burglar does not necessarily know if someone is at home when he breaks in, diGenova said.
The report was prepared for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittee, who has urged the city to build more prisons. Barry and Specter said at a hearing last month that before deciding that issue a study should be done of who is incarcerated now and if any might safely be released.
Some criminal justice experts have said that using alternatives makes sense for certain offenders, and local jurisdictions in other parts of the country are experimenting with this approach.
Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), the new chairman of the House District subcommittee on judiciary, does not agree that there are burglars who should be released from prison sentences, a spokeswoman said yesterday.
"His basic feeling is that not much of it the report can be entertained as a serious proposal," she said.
The city's report found a pool of 510 out of nearly 6,000 prisoners who would be candidates for alternatives under a set of "conservative" criteria, and 1,050 who would be eligible under "liberal" criteria. Under the liberal criteria some burglaries, weapons offenses and drug use are not classified as as "dangerous" crimes.
Repeat offenders and parole violators were taken out of consideration for release. The individual circumstances would have to be analyzed in each case, the report said.
After refining the prison information, the city plans to put together a policy, Samuels said.
The mayor's remarks were made at a press breakfast, which The Washington Post did not attend because the sessions are usually off the record.