Everybody is registering the proper degree of outraged disbelief over the report the mayor recently sent to Congress suggesting the possibility of non-prison sentences for certain felons -- including burglars, weapons offenders and drug abusers.
But nobody has come up with practical, safe suggestions for dealing with the problem -- prison overcrowding -- that prompted the report in the first place.
Well, almost nobody. Waverly Yates, who wasn't asked for his input on the report, has been thinking about the problem for some time. He has some ideas he thinks might help.
"It's something I've been preaching for years, but I'm not gaining many disciples," said Yates, who is president of Bonabond, a privately run third- party custody organization here. "The place to start is by putting money into pretrial supervision. The worst overcrowding is in the D.C. Jail, where 76 percent of the population consists of people awaiting trial. If you reduce that population by using alternative supervision -- even while keeping those people who are considered a danger to the community under the provisions of the preventive-detention statute -- you can have direct impact on overcrowding in the jail.
"Then you can use the space you gain for the overflow from Lorton. Bringing the least-dangerous convicted felons up from Lorton would not only ease overcrowding there but would also help to solve the family visitation problem, since the jail is right here in the city. Some of the least dangerous offenders should be phased back into the community, on the condition that they have jobs waiting for them, and that takes pressure off the intake at Lorton."
Yates's "least dangerous" offenders look a good deal like the people the mayor's report suggests should be kept out of prison to reduce the overcrowding: those charged with burglary and weapons and drug violations. But Yates would make some distinctions.
"There's a difference between what we used to call second-story men and habitual, assaultive burglars," he said. "The guy who breaks into a house after casing it to make sure it is unoccupied is a lot less dangerous, really, than the guy who goes into an occupied house prepared to hurt someone. A burglar who has never been charged with assault is usually not your most dangerous person.
"Most people who are serious drug addicts tend not to be all that dangerous either. They spend most of their time nodding off, maybe stealing something to pay for their next fix.
"At Bonabond, we also tend to make a distinction between people who carry weapons out of fear -- say, men beyond the age of 35 who may be slightly built or not good fighters and have no other way to protect themselves from their peers. These people are not as dangerous as a young man 18 to 24 who uses a weapon aggressively."
Yates believes that it makes sense to screen out the young man who commits non-aggressive economic crimes (because he has no job and no skills) and assign him to out-of-prison supervision while he trains for employment. "But if he drops out or makes excuses or doesn't report in, then he's flunked the test and he goes to prison," he said, adding that his organization is "seeing a lot of people who have no previous records but who have been out of work for a long time."
Yates agrees with critics of the mayor's Corrections Department report who contend that simply to announce that certain offenses will not be punished by incarceration would be an open invitation to crime. But he also questions the deterrent effect of actual prison sentences. "You have to understand that in many cases we are dealing with a subculture that looks at a prison term the same way you and I might look at a hitch in the Army: You don't want to do it, but it's really no big deal."
As things now stand, he said, the overcrowding at Lorton has shifted effective control of the institution from the staff to the inmates to the point where many corrections officers will openly admit that they are fearful of trying to institute discipline.
"You look at that, and you look at the prospect of spending something like $80,000 a cell for new facilities, and you realize that something has to be done. The pretrial population looks to me like a good place to start."