The problems are many: poor record keeping, outdated policies, complicated guidelines, halfhearted leadership, haphazard coordination, inadequate automation, human error.
D.C. corrections trustee John L. Clark told a federal judge yesterday that long-term problems in the placement of District felons in local and federal prisons could be substantially reduced with better computers, improved focus and a strong team of troubleshooters.
Clark, assigned to investigate how twice-convicted murderer Leo Gonzales Wright fell through the prison system cracks, found weaknesses in a host of agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, D.C. Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshals Service.
At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, Clark lauded dedicated employees and noted recent progress, especially at the District's corrections agency, where he credited Director Odie Washington with making "significant positive changes" since taking control in March.
But the trustee said the District needs a "more smooth-running machine" as the city surrenders control of its sentenced inmates to federal authorities. When the takeover is complete in October 2001, eight times as many inmates as now will be flowing each year from D.C. courts into federal prisons.
Clark made 24 suggestions, calling for a major computer upgrade and an interagency committee--including a federal judge--to solve problems. Noting that 14-year-old recommendations to improve the D.C. Department of Corrections have not been heeded, he said the city's mayor and corrections chief should track results and hold people accountable.
The Justice Department appointed Clark to investigate how inmates are classified, housed, moved and furloughed after Sullivan called the handling of Wright "woefully inadequate." Wright, convicted of the 1995 killing of human rights lawyer Bettina Pruckmayr, was moved in June to the Leavenworth, Kan., federal penitentiary.
Clark described Wright as "administratively lost" in the criminal justice system for more than two years. He said Wright spent extra time in D.C. facilities after "the entire system failed due to the convergence of multiple problems."
No one noted, for example, Sullivan's verbal request that Wright be shipped to a federal prison, Clark said. Documents needed by the D.C. corrections agency went undelivered for 19 months by the Marshals Service. Confusion over the status of Wright's various local and federal charges only complicated matters.
Among other problems described by Clark:
* The current system for shifting D.C. Jail inmates to prison at Lorton is "haphazard, risky and slow." He added, "Most of the operation is accomplished manually, and the handwritten records are too often illegible."
* Some inmates who should be moved to prison "remain at the jail far longer than is indicated, simply because they have been lost in the shuffle."
* Record keeping is poor. One inmate listed as a local prisoner in July had been transferred to federal custody in 1994. One recent day, 150 prisoners ready for federal custody were occupying beds at the D.C. Jail.
* The assignment process is slow. Clark's staff studied 1,221 cases and found eight prisoners who were overdue for release by the time the Bureau of Prisons decided where to incarcerate them. Tardy delivery of paperwork by the Marshals Service and parole office was one reason.
* The District's corrections system is losing money by undercharging the Marshals Service for the $90 daily cost of federal inmates housed at the D.C. Jail and by keeping poor track of prisoners whose upkeep should be a federal cost.