In a test of wills, the Democratic majority of the House District Committee yesterday unanimously rejected a resolution to halt the city's program of early inmate releases, while Republicans boycotted the meeting and prepared for a showdown over the issue on the House floor next week.
Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), sponsor of the resolution, said he will invoke a seldom-used rule under the D.C. home rule law to request that the House yank the resolution from committee, where it was defeated on an 8-to-0 vote, and bring it to a vote on the floor. The same maneuver was used by Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) in 1981 in persuading the House to rescind the District's sexual assault reform act.
An aide to Parris said yesterday that 170 Republican House members, including Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (Ill.), have pledged to support the effort and that many of the remaining 48 votes required for a majority likely could be recruited from among conservative southern Democrats.
"We feel once we make the case against the program we can pick up quite a few boll weevils," the aide said, referring to Democrats who sometimes side with Republicans. "We will stress the ineptitude of the city and its inability to manage their affairs and their corrections system. It will be a relatively good test vote for D.C. statehood."
The House is expected to vote on the Republican challenge early next week.
Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the District Committee, said that the impending floor fight "has enormous implications" for the future of home rule and the integrity of the committee's jurisdiction. He warned Democrats to be prepared for a lengthy battle.
The increasingly emotional dispute is over D.C. legislation that would grant permanent authority to the mayor to release certain prisoners before their terms expire to relieve crowding at Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail.
Since July 3, when Mayor Marion Barry declared a prison emergency and started a program of easing crowded prisons by releasing inmates up to 90 days early, about 870 prisoners have been freed.
Parris and other critics have alleged that the District violated its commitment to release prisoners convicted only of nonviolent crimes, that the program was hastily prepared and sloppily managed, and that any easing of crowding is temporary at best.
The resolution introduced by Parris would rescind the bill passed July 14 by the D.C. Council granting the mayor permanent authority to continue the program.
While opposing the resolution yesterday, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) said he was troubled by Parris' criticisms and by news reports suggesting that many of the inmates released early had been convicted of serious crimes, in violation of city guidelines.
Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Calif.), chairman of the judiciary subcommittee of the District Committee, said the District is "literally between a rock and a hard place" in trying to cope with prison overcrowding. He defended the early release law as a legitimate approach that has been used, in varying forms, by 17 states.
However, Parris contends that the early release program poses a threat to the security of District and suburban Washington area residents and is contrary to the federal interest.