D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, in a recent report to Capitol Hill, got down to specifics for the first time on which types of prisoners at Lorton his administration would consider suitable candidates for "alternative sentences" in the community, an approach he advocates as a way to relieve serious prison crowding.
The report -- which included some burglars, weapons offenders and drug users as potential candidates for release -- drew the lines clearly on an intensifying public debate on how to handle the District's convicted criminals.
In a city that last year recorded an average of more than 30 reported burglaries a day, a number of law enforcement officials, elected officials and community leaders reacted with outrage at the report and particularly its statement that burglars are not necessarily dangerous or violent.
Many of the officials and leaders are calling for longer prison terms for some criminals and building more prison facilities to hold them.
But other criminal justice experts agree with Barry that there is a need to find better and cheaper ways to deal with crime and prison crowding than simply building more prisons and warehousing criminals there for years.
In this view, both society and the offender would be better off by rehabilitation in the community, with punishments including volunteer service work and payments to the victim. Prisons then would be reserved for the truly violent and dangerous, those on this side of the debate argue.
"If you go to a bricks-and-mortar solution, you will just incarcerate more people . . . . It's not going to solve your problem," said Leonard Berman, program director at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, based in Alexandria. Prisons "don't prepare anybody to reenter society," he said.
Berman estimates that 30 to 35 percent of the District's prison population could safely be released to comprehensive alternative programs that might include third-party supervision by relatives or churches, volunteer work at hospitals or food banks, transporting the elderly, payments to the victim and help in finding a job.
Law enforcement officials, including U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, argue for more prisons. Judges already give probation or require community service for most first-time offenders and those not considered dangerous, they said.
"We know that there are just some bad people who won't play by the rules while the rest of us do," diGenova said. "We have to say enough is enough from an individual. We need to say, 'You are going to go to prison if you break the law.' "
Meanwhile, D.C. Superior Court Judge H. Carl Moultrie I coincidentally provided an example of alternative sentencing last week when he sentenced an Oxon Hill man who had killed his girlfriend to 365 days in prison, to be served on weekends.
The convicted slayer, Edward Strother, must deposit $2,500 in a trust fund for the victim's 6-year-old daughter and make monthly payments of $100 to her for 14 years, he must pay $100 a month to the child's guardian, and he must buy a $25,000 life insurance policy with the child as beneficiary.
Moultrie, considered a hard-nosed judge, said the slaying was "out of character" for Strother and that his imprisonment would not help the child. But members of the victim's family were angry, calling the sentence an injustice that sets a dangerous precedent.
Berman said his group helped put together the alternative approach in this case as they have done in about 400 other cases in the District. The group did a study of 150 of their clients in the District and suburban Maryland and found that 15 percent were rearrested within two years, but this "is lower than most recidivism rates," he said.
Barry said it costs $35,000 to $40,000 per cell to build new prison facilities and about $16,000 a year to house a prisoner. Taxpayers are unwilling to foot that kind of bill for prisons, and anyway the money could be better spent at the "front end," to provide jobs and other help that would keep someone away from crime, he said.
The mayor argued that the city has the highest incarceration rate in the country, 558 prisoners per 100,000 District residents.
"We've been hard on crime," with more than 27,000 arrests made last year, Barry said at a Senate subcommittee hearing last month.
DiGenova said his office has accepted the mayor's assessment that the city has the highest incarceration rate in the country, but he draws a different conclusion. "It is a result of a high crime rate and a high number of repeat offenders," he said.
Law enforcement officials expect the prison population to rise as mandatory minimum sentences go into effect and as rules are toughened on revoking parole and probation when conditions for release, such as keeping free of drugs, are violated.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on the District, had pushed the District to revise its parole and probation standards and wants to see the city build more prison facilities. He indicated that federal funding might be available for construction.
Specter agreed with Barry last month, however, that first the prison population should be profiled to see who is there and if any inmates are suitable for release.
The report Barry sent as a result found 510, of nearly 6,000 candidates for release to alternative programs, under a "conservative" set of criteria. Under a "liberal" screening criteria, the authorities found 1,050 candidates, whose records would have to be reviewed further to see if they really were suitable for release.
While the city has not devised a final guideline on eligibility for alternative penalties, factors used in developing the liberal option "indicate the kinds of considerations" the city would use to develop such a guideline, the report said.
It went on to state that "weapons offenses are technically victimless" and that "there is nothing inherently dangerous or violent about the offense" of burglary. Officials said later the report was referring only to burglaries where no persons were on the property at the time.
These statements in the report drew strong criticism from many quarters, including D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner.
"I have been a victim of burglary. It is a very traumatic experience to find out that your castle has been violated," Turner said. Statistics show that weapons offenses usually are charged against persons who have committed violent crimes, such as homicides, he said.
"We don't want to liberalize any penalties," said City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who has introduced a bill for a commission to find a place for a new jail. "We would become the capital of the western world for hoods," if criteria for prison terms were loosened, he said.
Shirley Wilson, director of the D.C. Office of Criminal Justice, Plans and Analysis, said the city has no proposals on alternative programs yet. "We are not at that point yet," she said. "We are just getting a good handle on the data base."
The National Institute of Corrections is working on a study funded by the federal government last year on the D.C. corrections system, trying to develop options and looking into possible prison sites in the city.
Most states are experiencing some form of prison crowding, but "the results are not in" on some of the experimentation with alternatives going on elsewhere, said William Wilkey, chief of the corrections institute's prisons division. "It's an area that doesn't have nice, neat, clean facts. There are so many variables."