D.C. Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson, abandoning his usual practice of maintaining a low profile in political issues, has disclosed publicly his support of mandatory jail terms for drug traffickers in the nation's capital.
In a strongly worded letter to council member John Ray (D-At Large), the council's principal proponent of mandatory terms for drug dealers, Jefferson wrote: "Stiffer penalties can serve as a deterrent and weapon against drug sellers in the battle to rid this city of illicit drugs."
While Jefferson has taken positions on pending council bills before -- including supporting mandatory sentencing in certain crimes involving handguns -- the letter to Ray was seen as an unusual action, in part because it put the outgoing chief squarely on one side of an issue that has taken on both political and philosophical overtones.
In the letter, Jefferson, who will retire at the end of next month, expressed criticism of council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Judiciary Committee that oversees the police department, and the man who is the author of the pending narcotics legislation.
"As you know," Jefferson wrote, "I too have been disturbed by the fact that the sponsor of this bill and others have been 'touting' the bill as a 'get tough' measure based on the federal model, when in fact the bill weakens the laws on mariguana, differs from the federal law on several points, and does not provide the U.S. Attorney with any new weapons."
Vernon Gill, general counsel to the police department, said that "I think he [Jefferson] feels very strongly about this issue."
Clarke, who generally opposes mandatory sentences, countered that his bill was in many cases more strict than the federal law, but added that "my posture is not to be in a race to see who's the toughest."
The debate centers around Clarke's proposed uniform narcotics act, which easily won preliminary council approval last week and is scheduled for a final vote next Tuesday.
Clarke's bill, which he said is patterned closely after existing federal law, would categorize drugs in five classifications, determined in part by the chemical content and degree of danger in use of the substance.
In the Clarke bill, possession of any amount of any drug in any category would be classified as a misdemeanor offense, as long as there was no intent to sell or distribute the drug.
But for those found guilty of manufacturing or distributing drugs, penalties would range from 15 years in jail and a $100,000 fine for selling some hard narcotics, to one year in jail and a $10,000 fine for selling cannabis.
Ray wants to include mandatory minimum sentences for drug sellers, but not for those who possess drugs. For those who well the most serious drugs, Ray wants a mandatory four-year minimum sentence. Ray does not want a mandatory sentence involving such substances as marijuana, although he does want the maximum possible sentence for its possession increased from one to five years.
After Ray's mandatory sentence amendments were defeated last week, he took his case to community forums and has enlisted the support of the Baptist Conference of Ministers, which endorsed his position.