U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova sharply criticized three D.C. City Council bills yesterday that are aimed at reducing prison overcrowding by shortening the sentences of some inmates. He said during a council hearing that passage of the measures would "legislate the premature release of repeat and dangerous offenders."
DiGeneva, who supports construction of a new District prison to relieve the bulging populations in the D.C. Jail and the city-run Lorton Reformatory, told the council's Judiciary Committee that the three council proposals, including one that would give the mayor emergency powers, were inadequate responses to overcrowding.
He also stressed that the District is dealing with a "hard-core prison population" and that city officials have failed for two years to identify the so-called "soft-population" that could be released safely into the community under sentence-reducing programs.
Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), chairman of the committee and a strong opponent of building a new prison, told diGeneva that he seemed to be implying that consideration of the council bills somehow would place D.C. residents in jeopardy. "All of us are committed to public safety," she said.
Under a bill introduced by council member John Ray (D-At Large) and called the Prison Overcrowding Emergency Power Act, if a prison exceeded its rated capacity for 30 consecutive days, the mayor would have the authority to declare an emergency under which the Department of Corrections could reduce by 90 days the minimum prison terms for some inmates.
The second bill, introduced by Council Chairman David A. Clarke, would allow inmates to petition the sentencing judge for a reduction of the minimum sentence imposed. The third measure, sponsored by council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), would allow prisoners to have their parole eligibility date advanced if they have successfully completed an academic or vocational educational program.
Shirley A. Wilson, director of the Office of Criminal Justice Plans and Analysis, testified that Mayor Marion Barry's administration favors the emergency powers proposal because it would not allow a sentence reduction for violent offenders with long criminal histories.
However, Wilson said that the other bills duplicate existing statutory and administrative provisions.
Representatives for the National Moratorium on Prison Construction and the Ex-Offender Task Force testified in favor of all three bills.
"This is such a straightforward and logical proposition for dealing relatively swiftly with the seemingly unmanageable crisis of prison overcrowding, it should receive the support of all concerned citizens and legislators," Eddie Winfield, president of the Ex-Offender Task Force, said of the emergency powers proposal.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has added $30 million to the city's budget for design and construction of a new prison. DiGenova told the council panel that the District had 2,465 inmates in federal prisons and that the "federal government's patience and willingness to remain the District's jailer is not endless."
"Unless the District government uses the money appropriated for a new prison," he said, "it may well imperil its control over site selection.".
A prison study commission, appointed by the mayor and council to recommend whether to build a prison and where it should be built, issued a preliminary recommendation in August against building a new facility. The commission's final report is due in January.