A relatively few criminals are responsible for a large proportion of the crime here. If we could lock up a few hundred of these repeat offenders, we could substantially reduce the local crime rate.
So why aren't we doing it? Perhaps because it's so much easier to talk about than to accomplish.
To begin with, you have to catch them. It was to that end that Mayor Marion Barry and Police Chief Maurice Turner announced three months ago the establishment of a special 85- member task force whose specific assignment was to go after "career criminals."
During its first week of operation, the squad picked up 24 suspects, several of them arrested in the act of committing crimes. Most of the 24 were back on the streets within hours of their arrest: free on bail and, presumably, plying their criminal trade.
That sort of thing gets to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, which is why he recently pressured the D.C. Council into passing "emergency" legislation to tighten bail restrictions. The measure passed unanimously last Tuesday, although some council members had misgivings about its usefulness and also resented D'Amato's pressure.
"It's not really accurate to say that I forced them, and it's not fair to them," the New York Republican said in an interview late last week. "It really came about as a result of concern by my colleagues on the Hill, particularly with regard to the proposal to hire more police.
"I talked to Chief Turner, who in essence told me that more police were not the answer. I had the opportunity to speak to several law enforcement people prior to that, and they said they were indeed making the apprehensions but that they would arrest them in the morning and they would be released in the afternoon. There's not much deterrent in that. In some cases it actually exacerbates the problem, first because the arrest and arraignment took police officers off the street and second it creates a morale problem as a result of officers' seeing their work go for naught."
D'Amato, a lawyer, said he had observed the same syndrome in New York. "What emerged from hearings and from conversations with my associates in the U.S. attorney's office is that we arrest a man for, say, armed robbery of a supermarket, but he's back on the street on $200 or $300 bail, and then there's nothing to retard him from being even more vigorous in his life of crime. He has to pay his attorney and his bail bondsman, and he knows that even if he gets caught on additional offenses he won't get any additional time."
It's a fair enough description of the problem, but it's hard to see how the recently passed legislation will help much. It provides for increasing from 60 to 90 days the time a suspected repeat offender can be held before he is brought to trial, and it changes from five calendar days to five working days the amount of time a suspect can be held while prosecutors determine whether he has violated parole or probation restrictions.
What he really wanted, D'Amato said, was legislation to make it easier for prosecutors to prove the need for holding suspects under the city's preventive detention law.
The problem, he says, is that the law forbids the use of bail bond as a deterrent. The purpose of bail is to ensure that the suspect will appear in court when his case is called. As a result, the tendency is to set bond with regard to the suspect's ability to pay--a fact that, according to D'Amato, means that many career criminals are gaining pretrial release for very little money.
He cites the case of a man charged with a heroin sale in which a 3-year-old child was allegedly used to help carry out the transaction: "He was free on a $300 bond on a second-degree murder charge when he was arrested. One man who was responsible for 200 to 300 burglaries a year is now out on a minimal bond, maybe $50. It's a good bet that he is right now casing a place."
D'Amato says he would like to see the District pass a law based on a national bill now pending in Congress that would allow judges to take the seriousness of the offense into account when setting bail. "I've seen a report that shows that in 1979, approximately 3,100 criminals committed 107,000 crimes. Ten to 15 percent of the criminals are committing 70 to 80 percent of the crimes. As long as we release these professional criminals, we can put 6,000 policemen on the street and it won't make any difference."
Unfortunately, from the senator's point of view, the present preventive detention law is seldom used here, a fact which leads some authorities to predict that expanding the law will have little impact on crime.
"I've heard that criticism," D'Amato said. "Someone said that the thing I'm talking about would mean locking up only 100 criminals. I don't agree with that, but even if it is true, when you consider that each of these 100 may be committing 30 crimes apiece, that's 3,000 crimes you have prevented.
"The main thing is to spread the word that once a man has been arrested for one crime, subsequent crimes aren't on the house. That, in and of itself, becomes a deterrent."