An overwhelming majority of District voters favor the mandatory minimum sentencing proposal on the Sept. 14 primary ballot, despite widespread opposition from city political leaders, major civil rights organizations and civil liberties groups, according to a poll released yesterday.
The poll, conducted last week by the Associated Press and WRC-TV, was the first firm indication of strong voter support for the proposed law, which would impose mandatory minimum prison terms -- with no chance for parole of probation -- for most persons convicted of using a gun during a violent crime and for certain drug offenses.
The results of a telephone survey of 973 registered voters showed 71 percent favoring the measure, 17 percent opposing it and 12 percent undecided.
Opponents of the proposal said yesterday they believe the poll shows that voters, anxious for a quick solution to the city's crime problem, have not been educated about the drawbacks of the new law, which they say will overcrowd city prisons but have no impact on the crime rate.
But, D.C. City Council member and mayoral candidate John Ray (D-At large), who helped draft the proposal and helped get it on the ballot, said voters are backing the measure "because it makes sense."
"Most of our citizens believe punishment does deter crime," Ray said, adding voters "are responding to what they view as a reasonable approach."
At a press conference yesterday, Washington Urban League president Jerome W. Page called the measure a "misguided approach to pacify the citizens of this city into believing that harsher punishment will prevent, deter and reduce crime."
Page criticized political candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary, who he said have remained "virtually silent" in public about their opposition to the measure, known on the ballot as "Initiative 9." Page said he believed that one of the reasons for that silence was because supporters of the measure have branded the opponents as being "soft on crime."
Among the Democratic opponents of the measure are mayoral candidates Mayor Marion Barry, Patricia Roberts Harris and council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 6).
At the press conference yesterday, opponents also released a letter from Del. Walter E. Fauntroy to Citizens for Sensible Sentencing, a coalition of citizens groups opposed to the new law, in which he urged District voters to vote against the measure. Fauntroy wrote that while he shared concerns about gun-related crimes and drug offenses in the city, he did not believe mandatory sentencing would help resolve those problems.
Initiative 9 would impose a mandatory minimum prison term of five years for persons convicted for the first time of using a firearm during the commission of a violent crime and 10 years for repeat offenders.
Persons convicted of selling or distributing illegal narcotic drugs, such as heroin, would face a mandatory minimum prison term of four years. Those convicted of selling or distributing non-narcotic drugs, such as cocaine, would face a fixed term of 20 months. A one-year minimum is proposed for those convicted of selling certain other controlled substances, such as marijuana, if the value of the goods exceeds $15,000.
The law would not apply to persons under age 22 and would provide exceptions for drug addicts who sell or distribute illegal substances to support their habit. To become law, the initiative must be approved by a majority of the voters Sept. 14 and then pass congressional review, as does all D.C. legislation.
The Associated Press/WRC poll was conducted on Aug. 25 and Aug. 26 and is subject to a 4 percent margin of error, the Associated Press said. The sample of 973 registered voters included 660 blacks and 241 whites, 154 persons between the ages of 18 and 24 years and 793 voters over 25 years old.
The pollsters also asked the voters a series of questions about the new D.C. lottery and found that 56 percent said they will buy lottery tickets, 38 percent said they would not and 6 percent were unsure.
Of those who said they would buy tickets, 53 percent said they thought they might win money, 30 percent said they thought they would be losers and 9 percent said they weren't sure about their luck.