About 140 of the inmates granted early releases this summer under the District's emergency program to relieve prison overcrowding had been convicted of a wide range of serious crimes, including robbery, assault, illegal drug sales and weapons violations, according to D.C. Department of Corrections records.
During the last several months, District officials have characterized the released prisoners -- whose sentences were reduced by up to 90 days -- as largely drug offenders or nonviolent criminals.
However, Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) said yesterday that the documents clearly demonstrate that District officials have prematurely released dangerous felons who will threaten public safety and likely commit other crimes. Parris, the ranking Republican on the House District of Columbia Committee, received the records through the U.S. attorney's office.
"These are not people who were convicted of failing to pay alimony and spitting on the street," said Parris, who has introduced a resolution to rescind the legislation that would enable the city to continue the early release program. "These are hardened criminals, most of whom worked out a plea bargain."
In announcing the emergency program July 3, Mayor Marion Barry said he wanted to reassure the public that "no prisoner convicted of a violent crime will have his sentence reduced under the emergency law."
Most recently, in testimony before the House District of Columbia Committee Sept. 11, City Administrator Thomas M. Downs said: "We have not released any inmates who were convicted of homicide, rape, assault with a dangerous weapon or other serious violent crimes such as armed robbery or kidnaping."
D.C. Corrections Director Hallem H. Williams Jr. said yesterday that nearly all of the 860 inmates who have been given early releases since July met the legal criteria of not having committed serious violent crimes. He acknowledged that a few drug offenders serving mandatory long-term sentences may have "slipped through the cracks" because of "human errors" or incomplete court records.
District officials and the U.S. attorney's office have repeatedly refused to divulge the names and criminal records of those inmates who have been released, claiming the information is privileged.
Parris is the first person to publicly disclose the information.
The records indicate that among the inmates who qualified for early releases, 26 had been convicted of robbery, 20 had been convicted of assault, 26 of weapons violations, 67 of illegal drug sales and 29 of a variety of sexual offenses.
The records cite two "rape" convictions, but Williams said those were clerical errors. He said none of the robberies involved the use of weapons and all of the sexual offenses were prostitution cases.
However, a federal law enforcement official said yesterday that by definition, a felony robbery -- the unlawful taking by force of some item of value from a victim -- is a violent crime. The official said that the District may have followed too liberal an interpretation of those inmates who qualified for early release.
Under the emergency release measure and the permanent legislation now under review by Congress, the mayor cannot reduce the sentence of any prisoner who is serving a life term or mandatory sentence, or of one who was convicted of committing a violent felony, "including a sentence for homicide, rape, assault with intent to rob, a sex offense other than rape, extortion, kidnaping, assault with a dangerous weapon, or armed robbery."
The U.S. attorney's office, which has opposed the early release program, said yesterday it is doing an analysis of some of the cases to determine whether the city has violated its own guidelines.
Parris, meanwhile, is pushing for congressional action to overturn the emergency powers legislation. Just as conservative Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) persuaded the House to rescind the District's sexual assault reform act in 1981 -- which was viewed by many as a major blow to home rule -- Parris hopes to convince House members that the early release legislation is a threat to their own safety and that of visiting constituents.
"This is a matter of public safety, not just for Washington residents but for the Washington area," Parris said.
Williams defended the program, saying that corrections officials had abided by the emergency legislation guidelines in selecting inmates for early releases of up to 90 days.
"There has been no intent to subvert the intention of the legislation," Williams said, adding that some mistakes may have been made.
"Because of the speed with which this was implemented and because sometimes there is a margin of human interpretation, there could be some human errors," Williams said. "But that would be the extreme exception rather than the rule."
While some of the early releases were subject to review by the D.C. Parole Board, most involved inmates who were completing their maximum sentences and did not require Parole Board approval.
The controversy first surfaced July 3, when Barry declared that an emergency existed because of overcrowding in the District's prison system and began to exercise emergency powers to begin the early release of certain "nonviolent" inmates.
The three-month emergency program was essential, officials said, to help meet court-imposed limits on inmate populations and to give officials some breathing room to begin implementing rehabilitation programs.
At the time, 7,950 inmates were incarcerated in District facilities, or about 600 more than the rated capacity. An additional 2,400 D.C. prisoners were being held in federal facilities.
The D.C. Council approved emergency legislation covering the short-term crisis and permanent legislation to allow the mayor to take similar steps in the future if the prison population soars far above the rated capacity.
Parris contends that District officials and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) misled Congress at the House District Committee hearing two weeks ago in saying that the inmates who were granted early releases this summer were not dangerous or violent.
Fauntroy, who opposes Parris' resolution to rescind the emergency legislation, argued that inmates benefiting from the early release program were not dangerous and had to "fit into narrowly defined categories."
"I believe that there is a qualitative difference between the thug who assaults a senior citizen and the welfare mother with six children who takes a chicken from the local grocery store in order to feed those children," Fauntroy said.
Neither Fauntroy nor D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke could be reached for comment yesterday.