Comments attributed to a District Department of Corrections spokesman in yesterday's editions incorrectly implied that early parole of some inmates may be imminent. The spokesman had said the department will soon identify inmates who would be eligible for reductions in their prison terms under a law passed last week by the D.C. Council to relieve overcrowding. (Published 6/21/87)

D.C. corrections officials reversed themselves yesterday and said that early release of some city prisoners could be "imminent" under a law passed Tuesday by the D.C. Council to relieve overcrowding.

Officials earlier had said that a reduction of inmates' sentences would not take place until at least 30 days after the bill is signed into law by Mayor Marion Barry. Yesterday, though, officials said they had decided the law could be applied retroactively, meaning that up to an estimated 400 inmates could become eligible for a reduction in their prison terms.

"It's imminent and it's going to be done," said corrections spokesman Edward D. Sargent.

Officials continued, however, to give conflicting appraisals of how the law would be implemented. Some suggested that Barry might have some discretion in applying the law and that he would press for the release of prisoners only as a last resort.

Others, though, conceded that the language in the law appears to give Barry little choice.

"I regard it as a mandate," Department of Corrections Director Hallem H. Williams said through a spokesman. "Once I've conveyed to the mayor the status of overcrowded conditions at the prison, the mayor shall declare an emergency."

Under the law, requested by Barry as part of a two-year-old court agreement with inmates at the D.C. Jail, corrections officials must request a declaration of an emergency if the inmate population remains above capacity for at least 30 days.

The law provides that the mayor must then order a 90-day reduction of sentences for eligible inmates. Those inmates would then appear before the parole board for a hearing. If the prison population is not reduced to 95 percent of capacity after the first reduction in sentences, the mayor is required to order a second 90-day cut in prison terms for eligible prisoners.

Some skeptics have suggested that Barry proposed the legislation this week because the city faces a July 1 federal court deadline to relieve crowding at three Occoquan prison facilities at Lorton Reformatory.

One senior adviser to the mayor said Barry would resort to early release of prisoners only as a last-ditch effort to reduce crowding. Corrections officials also said they consider the new law as only one of a number of possible solutions to the crowding dilemma.

But City Administrator Thomas M. Downs said the law "is not just an empty piece of paper . . . . You only have a limited number of options. This really is the only rational solution to the problem."

Another issue remains, however: how "capacity" of the city's prisons is determined. City officials indicated that there is no set definition of capacity, on which the whole process depends.

"Capacity is a function of a number of things," said D.C. Corporation Counsel Frederick D. Cooke Jr. "I don't think it's fixed for all time."

The legislation has continued to draw fire from some critics who contend that it will make little headway in reducting crowding because it excludes numerous offenses, including assault, robbery, extortion and homicide.

"It's quite limited. And it was very deliberately designed that way," said Alan Pemberton, an attorney for inmates at the Occoquan facilities.