Both as a drafter of the mandatory minimum sentences initiative and as an attorney with 15 years of criminal defense experience, I write in support of the initiative.
It provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for a person convicted the first time of a crime of violence (robbery, rape) while armed and a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years if so convicted a second time.
Under this provision, 18-to-21-year-old first offenders qualifying for special consideration under the Federal Youth Corrections Act may be sentenced to significantly lesser terms (including probation) in treatment, as distinguished from penal, facilities.
With respect to narcotics trafficking, the initiative calls for a mandatory minimum prison term of one to four years, depending on the type of drug, for pushers convicted under the recently enacted Uniform Controlled Substances Act. But if such a person were shown to be an addict at the time, with no prior similar convictions, the mandatory minimum penalty would not apply. A second offender, however, whether or not an addict, would be subjected to the appropriate mandatory minimum.
Guns are made to kill. Narcotics addiction has ravaged urban youth and costs our citizens untold millions of dollars each year. Both statistics and experience confirm that crimes of violence and narcotics addiction are closely interrelated.
There is absolutely no justification for possessing an unregistered firearm. Not only is mere possession a crime, usually a misdemeanor, but there is no legitimate social or moral purpose to be served. Our city, unlike the various states with which we are compared statistically, is exclusively urban, densely populated and has a high youth unemployment rate. These factors breed crime.
Violent crime is the major concern of the residents of the District of Columbia. Statistics compiled by the FBI from 1974 through 1981 indicate that violent crime increased 32 percent and that robberies, the city's most prevalent street crime, increased by 36 percent.
At the national level, roughly one-third of the homicides committed in 1979 were committed by someone the victim had never met. The comparable percentage for armed rapes, robberies and assaults is obviously much higher.
In 1979, pistols killed 10,728 Americans. That same year, there were 52 pistol deaths in Canada, 58 in Israel, 42 in West Germany, 48 in Japan, 34 in Switzerland, 21 in Sweden, and 8 in Britain.
Narcotics addiction is a disease, not unlike alcoholism. In August 1981, there were more than 2,000 addicts enrolled for treatment through the city's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. Other governmental agencies and private facilities were treating uncounted others.
Distribution of narcotic drugs, no matter what the quality, particularly when such distribution is not in support of one's own addiction, is a crime for profit only, and should be deterred. It is precisely this type of parasitic opportunism that permits the cycle of drugs and crime to perpetuate itself.
Some 85 percent of the criminal cases brought in our jurisdiction are disposed of by plea bargaining. Without effective plea bargaining, our judicial system would soon grind to a halt. The public should bear in mind that the initiative would not increase the number of arrests or volume of cases in the judicial system. It would, however, add in certain cases another tier to the alternatives for disposition.
For example, if one is currently charged with armed robbery, there are no fewer than eight lesser included felonies and misdemeanors for which one might typically bargain. Adding a ninth reserved for those who pose the greatest threat to society will not debilitate the system.
Assuming that present fiscal and space requirements mandate a fixed prison population and force us to a choice, wouldn't our city be best served by incarcerating, for example, 100 armed robbers and non-addict drug dealers and releasing to halfway houses or adequate community supervision a comparable number of car thieves, shoplifters and those convicted of similar property crimes?
If one were to count all our legislators, law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and correctional officials, the total would approximate 1 percent of the city's population. As part of that 1 percent for nearly 20 years, I must concede that notwithstanding sincere effort and the infusion of countless dollars, we have continued to lose ground. It is time that the public, the "consumer" of the criminal justice process, be allowed to speak.
The public should know that the initiative in its final form was the result of a great deal of input from a variety of sources. Charles Ruff, our former U.S. attorney and an opponent of the initiative, reviewed an early draft and submitted three pages of comments in July 1981. A number of his suggestions were incorporated into the final version.
A vote in favor of the initiative will not make crime disappear. It will, however, be a constructive step toward solving the problem perceived to be the most troubling in our city. More than 20,000 voters signed petitions in support of the initiative. A recent poll has indicated that four out of five people with an opinion favor it. Its time has come.