the alarming headline in yesterday's paper referred to a study of the present D.C. prison population prepared by the Corrections Department. Among its suggested ways to reduce the number of inmates was a proposal to provide alternative sentences for certain felons -- burglars, weapons violators and drug offenders among them -- who are not considered dangerous.
The Corrections Department paper acknowledges that two out of three inmates now serving time are dangerous felons who have been convicted of serious, often violent crimes such as homicide, assault with intent to kill and armed robbery. They belong behind bars. Of burglars, however, it says: "There is nothing inherently dangerous or violent about the offense (of burglary). It is a property offense. . . ." Burglars, the report suggests, may well be candidates for alternative sentences.
True, but then again, they may not. Some burglars are multiple offenders, after all, whose crimes are becoming increasingly serious. Some have stolen large amounts of money or objects of great value. There are reasons for sending an offender to prison other than the desire to protect ourselves from the violent -- and, by the way, many burglars do come armed. Among these reasons are deterring other criminals and society's interest in punishing those who break the law.
Then there are weapons violators, another class of offenders that the report suggests be reclassified as not dangerous. "Weapons offenses are technically victimless," says the new report. "They share many characteristics with regulatory violations. It may be advisable to distinguish between the use of a weapon and its mere possession."
True. But once again, it may not. The distinction between use and possession of a weapon is not one that every citizen would care to draw very hard and fast. Similarly with certain drug offenses, yet another category that, by virtue of a new classification, might lead the offender to an alternative sentence.
We appreciate the problem of prison overcrowding. And it is always useful to reexamine the sentencing system and look for improvements. This is being done in this city by a commission on felony sentencing guidelines established a year ago under the auspices of the Superior Court. It seems to us reckless, however, to consider announcing that burglars and weapons offenders will not go to prison -- an invitation to crime.