Burglary, weapons offenses and drug use may not warrant prison terms, and the D.C. prison population could be reduced substantially by not classifying these as dangerous offenses, according to a report prepared by city corrections officials as part of a debate over the need for new prison space.
More than 1,000 inmates -- out of the total District prison population of 5,962 Jan. 31, one of two dates chosen for study -- would be candidates for release to alternative programs if such a reclassification were made, the report found.
The report, prepared for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), is a key step in an ongoing debate between the District and Capitol Hill on whether the city should be forced to build more prison facilities to relieve current overcrowding and to prepare for what law enforcement officials say will be a rising prison population.
City officials have sent the final report to Specter, who could not be reached for comment last night.
Mayor Marion Barry has argued that some prisoners might be suitable for alternative programs in the community or sentenced to make restitution rather than serve prison terms. If such prisoners are identified and alternatives found, the District may not need more prison space, he has said.
"Weapons offenses are technically victimless," said the report, prepared by the D.C. Department of Corrections. "They share many characteristics with regulatory violations. It may be advisable to distinguish between the use of a weapon and its mere possession."
The department analyzed the prison population on two dates, Jan. 26 and Jan. 31. In its study of the Jan. 26 population of 5,947 inmates, based on "conservative" criteria that included burglary and weapons offenses as dangerous crimes, the department found 510 candidates for alternative sentencing.
Those 510 had no current conviction or open charge for a violent or dangerous offense, had no prior convictions for such offenses, were not wanted in another jurisdiction, and had no repeated drug offense history, no escapes or parole violations or a long record of offenses, it said.
"There is nothing inherently dangerous or violent about the offense [of burglary]. It is a property offense . . . . It is at least debatable whether a charge or conviction of burglary should, by itself, result in a presumption of incarceration. Therefore, it was excluded from the more liberal screening factors," the report said.
"Finally drug offenses, other than distribution, represent individual medical problems and a very serious social problem. However, it is at least arguable that incarceration is not the most effective approach to this problem," it stated.
Incarceration "may conflict with efforts to identify users and treat and control their problem," and referral to community treatment programs may be more appropriate than incarceration for conviction for more than one drug offense, it added.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova has differed with the mayor's view in the past, arguing that persons convicted of nonviolent or property crimes are not now getting prison terms unless they have long criminal records. He declined comment yesterday, saying he had not seen the report.
The study said the individual records of the 510 and 1,050 prisoners identified as candidates for alternatives under the two sets of criteria would have to be screened further before D.C. officials could say absolutely who should not be in prison.