Washington's top police officals, angry about the D.C. Superior Courts' leniency toward prostitution, say they could radically reduce thnumber of prostitutes working the city's streets if judges here would impose tougher sentences.
Prostitutes now "either get some innocuous fine of $25 or $30, which to them is like a tax stamp and can be earned in less than 15 minutes, or they get unsupervised probation, which is absolutely nothing," says Insp. Charles Rinaldi of the Metropolitan Police Department's third district, where most of the women operate.
"My personnel are tied up more than the prostitutes," Rinaldi said.
Parts of Northwest Washington are "inundated" with marauding women, many of them immigrants from other cities, police cheif Maurice J. Cullinane told a reporter recently.
"Washington is known up and down the East Coast as being easy on prostitutes," Cullinane said. He suggested that courts impose mandatory fines of $50, $100 and $250 for the first three soliciting convictions.
Harold H. Greene, cheif judge of D.C. Superior Court, said he has no authority to set mandatory sentences. Besides, he said, "I am not sure the police are supposed to be in the business of imposing pressure on courts."
Up to 300 women on any given night stalk the streets around Thomas Circle NW, police say, accosting tourists and passersby, cutting and robbing people, and jumping into unlocked cars to assault drivers.
Some 20 prostitution-related murders have occurred in that area in the last two years, and robberies and beatings are a nightly occurrence, police say.
There is no need for more officers or more arrests, Rinaldi said. His prostitution unit has made about 700 soliciting arrests so far this year. "In this small section of the city (the Third District) we have arrested more prostitutes in six months than the city of Los Angeles did last year," he said.
THe center of activity is in the area bounded by 13th and 15th Streets NW, and from K Street to Corcoran Street NW.
Because of recent newspaper publicity, Cullinane said, "people are starting to listen" to scattered but persisent complaints about prostitution from businessmen, resdients, tourists and victims. Cullinane is fueling the attention.
Recently, he asked Rinaldi for a complete report on the situation. Some of the initial statistics given him, which he released to a reporter, indicate that in the last month 33 pimps from California, New York and Ohio have come into the city, bringing with them about 60 women.
Other pimps and women have streamed into the city from Massachussetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Texas, New Mexico and Tennessee, Cullinane said.
Some 200 women have been arrested for prostitution two or more times, some as many as 17 times, according to police files. During the year ending June 30, police arrested for soliciting 113 women who had been released on their personal recognizance pending trial on earlier charges for the same offense.
"I feel powerless," Rinaldi said. "If the courts will cooperate, this district can clean up Thomas Circle, Logan Circle and the whole 14th Street strip in six weeks."
Rinaldi called for automatic jail sentences of 15, 30 and 90 days for the second, third and fourth soliciting offenses.
Only Congress has the authority to impose minimum or mandatory sentences, Judge Greene said. "I can't tell them (the other 43 Superior Court judges) what sentence to impose, and with all due respect, I don't think the inspector can tell them what sentence to impose."
A soliciting violation is a misdemeanor in the District, with a maximum penalty of a $250 fine and 90 days in jail.
Greene said that he could neither accept nor reject the police contention that sentences are light. Because of the number of misdemeanor cases in court (over 8,000 in the last fiscal year), it is too great a burden to keep statistics on sentences, court officials say. Police in the prostitution unit claim fines rarely exceed $50.
"Each judge has the authority and discretion to impose the kind of sentence he deems appropriate." Greene said. Soliciting cases, he said, "just like burglary or anything else, depend on the circumstances of the offense, the record of the offender, whatever circumstances (a judge) considers appropriate."
Cullinane said he has no plans to ask judges directly for harsher penalties.
"I have asked them and asked them and asked them," he said.
Judge Greene said he has no recollection of any such requests from Cullinane.
Speaking out on the issue, Cullinane said recently, "is part of my responsibility to promote public safety, because the light treatment afforded prostitutes by the courts encourages their presence in the District."
This is not the first time that the city's police chief has confronted the courts.
After his appointment to chief in December, 1974, Cullinane began criticizing the courts for "revolving-door" justice, Chronic criminals, as he saw it, were being treated too lightly.
Court officials said then that if that was true, it was because they were not given enough information about defendants during sentencing. Cullinane and U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert last year joined to create "Operation Doorstop," a task force that provides such information. Police say the sentences for recidivists are now far harsher.
Some lawmen say they believe judges are reluctant to jail prostitutes because the District's detention facilities are overcrowded. "I have not heard that that is a factor," Judge Greene said. "I know it would not be a factor with me."
A spokesman for the D.C. Department of Corrections said that their facilities are over capacity, but that if more prisoners were sent to them they would have "no choice" but to accept them and make adjustments.
Some policemen place part of the prostitution problem with the efforts of prosecutors. "The majority just don't care about our cases," said one member of the prostitution unit. "They don't want to be bothered with us. It's a lot of work for them. They seem to think if a woman wants to sell her body, it's okay. They don't seem to realize the other crime that these women bring."
To that charge, the chief of Superior Court operations for the U.S. Attorney's office, Henry Greene, responded: "We have no policy that places an over-emphasis or an under-emphasis on soliciting prostitution cases. The fact is we prosecute the cases, and it's up to the court, not us, to impose the sentences." These sentences he added, "seem almost routinely in the area of small fines."
As long as the women can make $150 to $200 dollars a night and face only a $25 to $50 fine, Washington will continue to be a profitable place to work, Cullinanae said.
"I have sympathy with people who live in the areas where the action goes on on a large scale," Judge Greene said. He said he had no solution "for a problem that has gone on for a long time."