D.C. City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) had little trouble recently in turning out large crowds of supporters for her criminal justice proposals, including a measure to limit prison sentences for many youthful offenders.
Rolark, the chairman of the council's Judiciary Committee, is advocating a long-term policy for the District government that would stress rehabilitation, counseling and job training rather than long prison terms and the construction of new prison facilities.
During public hearings at the District Building last week, her proposals received vigorous support from the D.C. Public Defender Service and advocacy groups that work with convicted felons. But from a purely political standpoint, Rolark is swimming against the tide and likely will have to make major concessions along the way.
Although she wields considerable influence as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rolark is little match for the emerging coalition of Mayor Marion Barry, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that favors building a prison in the District and opposes measures that would signal a softening in the criminal justice system.
Barry was a late convert to the notion that the District needed a new, federally financed prison to relieve overcrowding at the city-run Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail. Until recently, he fully agreed with Rolark that building more prison cells was hardly the answer for attempting to stem the tide of serious crimes in the District.
But the recent overcrowding in the D.C. corrections systems and mounting pressure from Specter, the chairman of the Senate's D.C. appropriations subcommittee, helped Barry reverse his position. And now he is pushing for the construction of a new prison in the District that Rolark says she unalterably opposes.
"Across the board, we do not think bricks and mortar are the answer," Rolark said. "Prisons fill up almost as soon as they go up."
Rolark's opposition to a new prison stems in part from a parochial concern. Rolark's ward, east of the Anacostia River and home to the largest concentration of poor people in the city, would be considered by city and federal officials as a possible site for the new prison. As Rolark sees it, what Ward 8 needs right now are jobs and economic development and not a new prison that would pose security problems for nearby residents.
Rolark also contends that construction of a new corrections facility would provide at best short-term relief to the overcrowding problem but would do nothing to get at some of the root causes of crime, including inadequate education, job training and drug addiction.
The city should pursue an all-out program to rehabilitate and counsel convicted felons and to divert those who are most deserving from long terms in prison, she said. "With the high level of unemployment and the cutoff of all of these federal programs . . . it the problem of crime is going to get worse, not better," Rolark said.
The centerpiece of her proposal is a youthful offenders rehabilitation bill that would place a four-year limit on prison sentences for many 18- to 21-year-olds convicted of any felony except murder.
Under that proposal, D.C. Superior Court judges would have the discretion to assign youthful offenders to a program of indeterminate sentences of up to four years, with an additional two years probation, provided the judge made a public declaration to justify the action. The youthful prisoners would be incarcerated away from the general adult prison population and the city would provide them with special vocational training, education and counseling.
The courts would have discretion to suspend imposition of a sentence and place the offender on probation.
Last week, City Administrator Thomas Downs objected to key portions of the bill that, in effect, would limit to four years prison sentences for many youthful offenders who committed violent crimes such as rape, armed robbery, felony assault and felony drug law violations.
"We want to send a message to young adults that, in addition to the crime of murder, persons who commit other violent crimes will not be given the chance to receive a less harsh sentence than their older counterparts," Downs said in testifying for the Barry administration.
DiGenova, who also appeared before the Judiciary Committee, told Rolark, "I'm not a big fan of massive programs of alternative sentencing."
The U.S. attorney said that, in the abstract, alternative or reduced sentencing programs are a good idea. However, DiGenova said he doesn't agree with advocates that many of those currently serving time at Lorton could be safely released.
DiGenova said he would refuse to go along with alternative sentencing schemes until the District government prepares a thorough and detailed profile of the current prison population. "I want to know who is doing time and what they're in there for before I ask the public to assume the risk of alternative sentencing," DiGenova said.
Rolark, who once was a victim of a street crime, said she is sensitive to the public's concern about keeping dangerous criminals off the street. But she insisted that something far reaching must be done, other than building a new prison, to try to stem the tide of crime in the District.
"I know people are afraid," she said. "But that can't blind you . . . . You can't think from a purely selfish point of view."