The D.C. prison study commission's preliminary vote to oppose the construction of a new prison in the District drew sharp criticism yesterday from several city officials who said the commission had taken an unrealistic view of a major public safety problem.
"I think that it is an irresponsible decision," said City Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2). "I think the commission is basically composed of fairly progressive people with good intentions who don't understand how the real world operates and don't live in areas where the criminals run the neighborhood."
Monday night, the commission rejected a resolution calling for a new prison and voted 10 to 3 for a second resolution placing a greater reliance on pretrial release programs and probation. The commission, whose members were appointed by the mayor and the City Council, is expected to make a final recommendation in January, but the recommendation will not be binding.
Prior to the commission's preliminary decision, Mayor Marion Barry had told the group that he favored the construction of a new prison to house a growing inmate population and deal with serious overcrowding at the D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory. Barry also warned the group that political realities would dictate that the city begin determining the size, type and location for a new facility.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has added $30 million to the city's budget to build a new prison in the District. Yesterday, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, who has long supported new prison construction, said that "in terms of public safety, there is no alternative to the construction of a new prison." He said he hoped that the commission would "understand the problem a little more" before it makes its final recommendation.
But City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), chairman of the council's Judiciary Committee and a strong proponent of sentencing alternatives, said she was delighted by the commission's preliminary finding.
"The simplistic idea of constructing a new prison is not the answer to the criminal justice problems that we have," said Rolark. "I am pleased with the resolution and in particularly with the vote. It is consistent with what the experts feel."
Some study commission members indicated that criminal justice experts who appeared before the committee played a key role in convincing them that a new prison would not be the solution. Other members said the commission may change its position once it obtains additional information.
"The resolution reflects the feeling of the majority of members, but we don't want to close our minds," said the Rev. Edward A. Hailes Sr., the study commission chairman.
Meanwhile, the commission plans to hold a public hearing and focus on alternatives to incarceration, including proposals to implement an intensive probation program for convicted felons, construct a facility for the treatment of convicted drug abusers and expand funding for a pretrial third-party release programs.
City Council members who were critical of the commission's opposition to building a new prison said they agreed that alternatives should be considered but expressed concern about why the panel would focus on alternatives before dealing with the question of whether a new prison should be built.
"I was hoping the commission would tell us exactly where to place the prison," said City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), adding that he plans to register his concerns with the commission chairman. "I don't believe we have an alternative to building a prison and I don't want Congress deciding where to put it."
Crawford and Wilson said they also question how much weight the commission's final recommendation will carry with the City Council.
"The problem is that the commission is not reflecting what the community needs," said Wilson. "I don't think what they do one way or the other is going to have much impact on whether we have a prison."
Commission member Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, said that the controversial nature of the prison issue may influence the commission's final action.
"The commission wants to make a recommendation but the commission may end up dumping the whole matter in the mayor's lap," said Williams. "That is not a remote possibility at all, because this is a hot political potato."