Finding alternatives to placing convicted criminals in prison may be an idea long overdue for serious debate in the District, officials in the city's criminal justice system say.
However, these officials agree the necessary programs either are nonexistent here or have not been perfected to satisfy community concerns for public safety.
The debate heated up Monday when a D.C. prison study commission recommended that the city expand community-based programs and other alternatives to incarceration instead of allowing the federal government to build a new prison here. The panel's proposal probably would cost the city millions of dollars to hire additional probation officers, build more halfway houses and bolster drug monitoring and other surveillance techniques.
The soaring number of drug-related crimes has swamped the city's relatively meager efforts to monitor and combat drug use, law enforcement authorities contend.
Moreover, proposals for more halfway houses in the District are likely to encounter heavy opposition from neighborhood residents.
Under a federal judge's order to reduce overcrowding at D.C. Jail, corrections officials already have begun moving inmates to halfway houses in the city.
D.C. City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) said yesterday that "the whole approach is absurd."
Winter complained that the capacity of a halfway house in the 1400 block of G Street NE in her ward has been increased from 45 to 90 inmates to accommodate inmates the jail could no longer hold. At another facility on North Capitol Street, the capacity was increased by more than 50 percent, from 125 to 190.
"It is not only entirely ridiculous in theory, but utterly senseless in practice to take criminals out of an overcrowded jail and pack them like sardines into minimally secure community-based residential facilities," Winter said.
D.C. Corrections Department spokesman Leroy Anderson said officials have not determined whether the expanded capacities of the halfway houses are permanent.
Still, some officials of the city's criminal justice system believe it is only a matter of time before even greater reliance will be placed on these and similar alternatives to prison, as has been the experience in other jurisdictions grappling with overcrowding.
"Whether we build a prison or don't build a prison, we have to be considering all of these alternatives," said Alan M. Schuman, director of social services for the D.C. courts and an authority on probation issues. "The panel's recommendation is an indication that the community is ready to accept safe programs."
Just what constitutes a safe program and who among the city's convicted and accused offenders should be eligible is another question. Interviews with prosecutors, court officials and advocates for alternatives indicate that there are far-ranging and conflicting views on this issue.
"Nobody has even taken the time to look into who is in the[prisons] so you could determine who could be placed in those kinds of [alternative] programs," said Ed Koren, staff counsel to the National Prison Project, which played a key role in a recent court action that forced the city to reduce crowding at the D.C. Jail.
One of the ideas advocated by the D.C. prison commission is intense probation supervision along the lines of programs in Georgia and a few other states.
Under the fledgling program in Georgia, probationers are subject to curfews, at least five unannounced visits at home or at work and spot urinalyses or breath tests to detect drugs or alcohol. Also, probation officers monitor the activities of no more than 25 people.
Probation supervision in the District falls far short of the Georgia program. Here, about 100 caseworkers oversee about 14,000 probationers, or 140 cases for each probation officer.
The city's strictest probation program provides just four conversations a month between caseworkers and clients; those are mostly brief and often by telephone.
Even if the city's judges accepted an intense probation plan, the proposal could meet stiff opposition from prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office, who maintain that convicted criminals here generally are far more dangerous than those in other jurisdictions.
"I saw a film clip on the Georgia program on television the other night and the probationers in the pictures were all sweethearts," said one prosecutor. "They all had these nice smiles. We just don't have that many convicts like that here."
To develop a similar program, officials said the city would have to improve vastly its ability to monitor and treat drug abuse. Now, only a small fraction of people on probation receive regular drug tests.
Jay Carver, director of D.C. Pretrial Services, the city's bail agency, is developing a plan to place some high-risk defendants in halfway houses instead of the jail while they are awaiting trial. Defendants would be tested regularly for drug use in the belief that by keeping them drug-free the city would reduce the risk they would commit new crimes.
In another area, the prison commission said the city should increase the number of criminal defendants allowed to take part in third-party custody programs in which the city contracts with private agencies to assume responsibility for defendants pending their trials. About 14 percent of all defendants now are released into such programs, compared with 23 percent who are required to post bond.
But Carver said much stronger controls also are needed in custody programs. Some programs have been sharply criticized for failing to maintain even minimal supervision of defendants.