If the purpose of the District's early-release program was to reduce prison overcrowding, it has failed miserably. However, it has done a marvelous job of increasing the potential dangers to our law-abiding citizens. And it sends all the wrong messages to those disposed to commit crimes and seriously erodes the authority of our judges.
On Aug. 20 The Post reported early-release estimates made by D.C. corrections officials: a total of 900 inmates would be released early -- nearly three times the original estimate of 350. The article also stated that 483 prisoners had been released between July 3 and Aug. 14 but that the prison population had been reduced by only 126 in that same time period.
The proponents of Bill 7-177, the "Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act of 1987," argued before the D.C. Council and elsewhere that only those convicted of nonviolent crimes would be eligible for early release. My concerns about this legislation were not allayed by this fact. What a person is convicted of may not reflect what that person was charged with, and in fact, the conviction is often the result of the defendant's pleading guilty to a lesser charge. For example, Superior Court Judge Frank E. Schwelb, in his recent opinion in U.S. v. Patricia Rogers et al., stated that "mandatory minimum sentences for armed robbery have long been avoided by permitting a defendant to plead guilty to robbery." These are not necessarily Cub Scouts to whom we are granting early release, and that needs to be clearly understood.
And what about the "white-collar criminal"? While he is considered "nonviolent," he surely does as much violence to our system as a mugger does to his victim. Do we want to reward a corrupt individual with early release just because his acts caused no physical harm? A former high-ranking District official, convicted of corruption, was recently sentenced to six to 30 months in prison. Luckily, that individual was sent to federal prison; otherwise he would be eligible for parole consideration under the early-release program after having served only three months. Is this the kind of message we want to send during a time of intense scrutiny of the integrity of District government officials?
During consideration of Bill 7-177, the proponents of early release argued that reduction of the minimum sentence would only speed up the date for parole eligibility; the Parole Board would consider each case individually, and this would constitute a real safeguard for the community. However, what was not emphasized is that the early-release program also provides for reducing the maximum sentence that an inmate is serving. Thus, eligible inmates serving maximum sentences can be released three months early with no screening by the Parole Board or anyone else. Let's be honest about what the early-release program does: it releases convicted and possibly violent criminals into the community before they have served the sentences that were imposed on them.
This is not the first piece of legislation passed by the council that erodes the authority of our judges. The "Good Time Credits Act of 1986" also ensured that judges can never be confident that even the minimum sentences they impose will be served. What has occurred under the early-release program is even worse, and could have been predicted: some convicted criminals are eligible for release the minute they enter the prison system.
Bill 7-177 provides for early release only if the inmate population exceeds the rated design capacity for 30 days and the mayor declares a state of emergency. The present state of emergency, declared on July 3, is scheduled to terminate at the end of September. It is at least possible -- and, given past history, probable -- that what we will actually see is a constant state of emergency in which more prisoners are coming into the system, resulting in more being let out on early release. Early release will be a "given" at the time an inmate enters the system. The early-release program will, in effect, automatically reduce every imposed sentence by three months.
Come the end of September, it is likely that the inmate population will have once again exceeded the rated design capacity for 30 days, the mayor will declare another state of emergency, more "nonviolent" criminals will be relased early, and the result will not be a significant reduction in prison overcrowding.
The law-abiding citizens of this community deserve a solution to prison overcrowding that does not endanger them in their homes, in the work place or in the streets. The emergency-release program does not do that. Furthermore, it telegraphs all the wrong messages to those involved in criminal activity. -- Betty Ann Kane is an at-large member of the D.C. Counci