D.C. City Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2) said yesterday that he plans to try to earmark money in this year's city budget for site acquisition and design of new prison facilities for the District.
Such a proposal could force a vote for the first time on the controversial issue of whether the city should build a new prison or find other ways of dealing with serious crowding in existing facilities.
"A lot of young kids tell me, 'They can't put me in jail, they got no place to put me.' These guys know what they can do and get away with," Wilson said in a telephone interview. "They even calculate the length of time they would have to stay" if they were caught and convicted.
Wilson said he is working on an amendment to propose to the District's capital improvement budget, which committee members are scheduled to consider next month, for the site acquisition and design funds. Construction funds could be allocated in another year, he said.
Prison construction would require a two-step process, authority to do it as part of the budget and then financing of it through bond issues. Wilson said bond proposals would go through the council's Finance and Revenue Committee, which he heads.
Mayor Marion Barry has said he prefers to find alternatives to building new prison facilities, such as new standards for sentencing some offenders.
A report sent recently to Capitol Hill by city officials suggested that some imprisoned burglars, weapons offenders and drug users not considered dangerous might be candidates for such alternative sentencing.
Local law enforcement officials and some members of Congress have said the city needs more prison space to house an expected rise in the prison population because of tougher sentencing laws, parole and probation rules.
No clear majority has emerged on the City Council on the prison issue. Wilson said he cannot predict the outcome of a vote on his proposal, but that he thought it had a "reasonable possibility."
"The major issue in this city is crime . . . . A new correctional facility should be a priority," said Wilson. "The public is much more interested in building jail cells than a lot of other things we're doing with their money."
Barry has said the public is not willing to pay higher taxes to build and maintain expensive new prison cells. But Wilson said any construction would be funded by the bonds, which would be paid off over a long period of time.
While there has been talk on Capitol Hill of federal funding for new prison facilities, the city will have to pay for it eventually, he added.
"We have to stop being coy with the citizens," Wilson said. "Everybody who represents a ward understands that we have to do something in this area."
Wilson also said he is considering introducing a bill to permit capital punishment for some crimes, now not allowed for those convicted in the District, to keep up with Maryland and Virginia, where the death penalty is allowed in some cases.
"Criminals are not fools," Wilson said. "Why rob a bank in Virginia and maybe kill somebody by mistake and face the death penalty ? If you do it in D.C., the worst you can get is life imprisonment and the chance for parole."
He said his main concern is the fear that it might be used more against blacks than whites committing the same offenses "or I would have put in a bill long ago."
City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) said he thinks the city will need to build more prison space and that there is land at Lorton to do it, but that the city is not at the point yet of budgeting site and acquisition funds.
"The Department of Corrections needs to . . . figure out what we need and how much space we're talking about," said Ray, author of the city's mandatory minimum sentencing law.