The D.C. police, thanks in part to a successful new crackdown on narcotics offenders, are catching more criminals. But there's a catch to all that catching: the D.C. Jail, with a rated capacity of 1,355 inmates, is now crammed with more than 2,300.
And while the police keep sending more suspects to jail, the city is under a court order to reduce the overcrowding.
So far, no one has suggested cutting back on law enforcement as a way out of the dilemma, but nearly everything else has been proposed. Mayor Marion Barry would transfer 100 or so inmates to the Lorton prison, reopen an unused facility at Occoquan, Va., and push early parole for inmates who can find work. Councilman John Ray has introduced a bill that would trigger a 90-day advancement of parole eligibility whenever overcrowding reached "emergency" levels--at least until the city can build more prison facilities.
Waverly Yates, who heads Bonabond, the city's largest third-party custody program, offers one more proposal: release more nonviolent suspects to his custody.
Early parole, says Yates, works only for convicts serving time, but only about a third of the inmates of the jail have been convicted; the bulk of them are awaiting trial. And the reason they wait in jail, he says, is that they have no money.
"We're talking about people charged with nonviolent offenses: petty larceny, burglary, sol pros (soliciting for prostitution), various marijuana charges, forgery, shoplifting, that sort of thing," says Yates, whose agency was founded in 1966 by ex-convicts.
"They're all eligible for release on bond, and usually not that much bond at that. But here's the trick: most of the bonds that are being set in the D.C. courts, most of the bondsmen don't want anyway. The few bondsmen that are left are looking for the big stuff. They don't make money on that little $1,000 or $500 bond.
"A lot of times, a judge with a good heart will set bond at $1,000, and the defense attorney will plead for a 10 percent premium. The judge might grant 10 percent, but unless the defendant has some money in his pocket, or a relative with some cash, he'll just sit there, because the bondsman doesn't want to touch him."
The same considerations that make such detainees eligible for relatively small money bond also make them good candidates for third-party custody, Yates contends.
"In some ways, it's a lot better," he says. "The guy who posts money bond, or is released on his own recognizance, is on his own pending trial. But if he is released to us, he is under supervision. He has to telephone us every day and report to the office three times a week. If he is under curfew, we double-check to make sure he is in. He has to check with his probation officer, go by the drug-treatment facility for tests, check with his attorney. We insist on his looking for work. Even if he can't find it, we make him go out anyway, to keep him busy.
"It's not 100 percent--nothing is. But we cut his free time down so bad that the likelihood of his getting involved in another crime is drastically reduced."
In addition, says Yates, whose organization already supervises some 800 released persons, a defendant in his third-party care "has an umbrella around him that ordinarily wouldn't exist. We hook up to his family, his girlfriend, his walk partner; we know the people in the community around him. It's a good deal all around."
It's also good economics, he says. "If you take into consideration the money you save by not incarcerating him and also the crimes that our supervision keeps him from committing, you may be talking about a difference of a million dollars a year."
At least it's cheaper than building another new jail.