The D.C. government report suggesting that burglary, weapons offenses and drug use may not warrant prison terms seems to fly in the face of toughening public attitudes about crime. But this approach is endorsed by some criminal justice experts and follows similar attempts to reduce prison populations elsewhere.
"Given the resource crunch people are experiencing, most are falling all over themselves trying to figure out what they can do short of sending people to prison," said Mark Cunniff, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Justice Planners.
"I very much sympathize with the situation of corrections in the District," Cunniff said. "How do you run a safe institution and a constitutional institution with prison populations like that? You have to have controls on who's coming in."
Officials in many jurisdictions across the country are reevaluating how harshly crimes like burglary, for instance, should be treated by the criminal codes and the courts.
"Increasingly the issue of overcrowding and the cost of confinement is driving policy makers across the board to rethink the issue of imprisonment," said Dale Parent, deputy director of the National Institute for Sentencing Alternatives at Brandeis University.
"I think it's clear that a fairly sizable number of people confined in prison could be placed in community settings," Parent said.
Unlike the District, where the rate of incarceration ranks among the highest in the country, and unlike jurisdictions such as New York, which have passed tough mandatory sentencing laws, some other jurisdictions have decided that the budget should control the law enforcement effort, and not the other way around.
Perhaps the most dramatic example is Minnesota, where the state legislature established mandatory sentencing guidelines for judges five years ago and tied them to the amount of prison space available.
There, a commission fashioned the sentences judges could impose so that the number of inmates would not exceed the state's ability to house them. The commission can lower sentences when prison resources become strained.
"We viewed the situation much more in terms of how best to use the prison space we had and who we'd like to lock up," said Kay Knapp, director of the state's sentencing guidelines commission.
"We have very modest goals, which are to try and apply the punishment equitably and use our resources as well as we can," Knapp said. "We don't expect to reduce crime and we don't expect that anybody's going to be able to with a sentencing system."
Officials in the District are inching toward sentencing guidelines here. A local commission set up by the courts -- consisting of U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, who was sharply critical of the D.C. Corrections Department report; City Council Chairman David A. Clarke; D.C. Corporation Counsel Inez Reid, and several judges, lawyers and criminologists -- has been meeting for a year to discuss the issue.
Ostensibly aimed at reducing disparities in the sentences offenders receive from judges in D.C. Superior Court, the local guidelines are not expected to be completed until later this year, and it is uncertain whether they will address the problems of prison crowding.
Minnesota and four other states, including Maryland, have adopted sentencing guidelines, and eight others are developing them. But unlike Minnesota -- where the legislature excluded law enforcement officials critical of the guidelines from participation in the guidelines commission -- most jurisdictions have balked at limiting the number of offenders who can be sent to prison because of public concerns that some crimes will go unpunished.
"Every jurisdiction has to be judged in terms of its own practices and tolerances," Parent said. "What might be relevant to Minnesota might not be relevant to Washington, D.C."
The corrections department report that touched off a hail of criticism this week suggested that 1,050 of the nearly 6,000 inmates in the D.C. prison population could be released into community-based programs if officials changed their thinking about the punishment necessary for burglary, weapons offenses and drug use.
"Prison and jail space should be reserved for those who are demonstrably violent or who otherwise present a clear danger to the public," the report stated. "It is at least debatable whether a charge or conviction of burglary should, by itself, result in a presumption of incarceration."
DiGenova called the suggestion "mindless," saying it bordered on decriminalizing those offenses.
Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are divided over whether there is a "presumption of incarceration" when convicted burglars step before the bench for sentencing.
That depends, they say, on the burglar and what he is convicted of burglarizing.
"I think there definitely is a presumption that a person convicted of burglarizing a home is going to get prison time," said one local judge who asked not to be named. "If somebody broke into your house and stole your belongings, wouldn't you want him to be punished?"
"I really see a big difference between somebody who breaks into a shoe store and steals some shoes and somebody who breaks into a house where there are people sleeping," said another local judge. "There's a much greater possibility of somebody getting hurt."
Under the sentencing guidelines in Minnesota, defendants convicted of burglary are presumed to receive probation. But their chances of going to prison -- calculated on a system of points -- increase according to the types and frequency of prior convictions, as well as other factors.
The recent corrections department report did not go into detail about the types of burglaries that had been committed by the inmates it suggested could be released. The 1,050 inmates cited in the report did not include prisoners with more than two convictions.
Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I announced recently that he would sentence a man convicted of murdering his former girlfriend to a year of weekends in jail, plus restitution to the woman's daughter.
Advocates of alternative sentencing perceive the sentence by Moultrie, considered one of the court's hard-nosed judges, as a sign that notions about alternatives to prison terms might be changing in some quarters on the court.
"Obviously, the jail population is at its highest level ever and many of these individuals could do community service or make restitution to the victims, something other than incarceration," said Robert J. Pleshaw, attorney for the man recently sentenced by Moultrie.