Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday that he would like to stop arresting and prosecuting many drug buyers and that he is "thinking about getting dogs to patrol streets" as a way to clear drug traffickers from city sidewalks.
Barry told U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova and Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen he would like to discuss those matters and others with diGenova as part of an overall drug prosecution strategy that would "slow the intake" of persons into the city's crowded prison system. He said part of the strategy would be to find a way to target distributors of phencyclidine (PCP).
Barry's comments, made during an informal conversation with diGenova and Jensen that was overheard by reporters, came after a pointed exchange between the mayor and the U.S. attorney during a Senate subcommittee hearing in which Barry blamed diGenova's "hard-line" prosecution of drug cases for the prison crowding.
Barry said later that his discussion with diGenova and Jensen was a "private conversation" and that he was "jesting" when he suggested using dog patrols.
DiGenova and a spokesman for Jensen later confirmed the substance of their brief talk with Barry and said they took seriously the mayor's comments about dog patrols.
"I wasn't advocating any damn thing," Barry said.
"For the record," Barry said, "I think we ought to arrest everybody who commits a crime . . . . I've told the chief [Maurice Turner] to arrest everybody who commits a crime."
But, he said, there were 9,000 drug arrests in the city last year and 6,000 convictions, "and you obviously can't lock up 6,000 people." He said the city needs to find a way "to deal with nickel-and-dime users of drugs . . . since the system is so overcrowded."
Barry said he asked diGenova to sit down with him and Turner and discuss "what would be our priorities if we've got a clogged sytem."
Asked what priorities he would set, Barry replied, "It's none of your business right now."
Asked to comment on Barry's remarks to him, diGenova said, "No one involved in drugs is going to get a free pass as a policy of this office."
"Prosecutions that occur in Superor Court in drug cases for the most part involve low-level seller to low-level seller, each of whom also happens to be a user," diGenova said.
"It's important to remember," diGenova said, "that Superior Court prosecutions by this office are essentially reactive; that is, we prosecute the cases that are brought to us by the police department."
"I don't believe the citizens want this office to reduce the pressure on dealers, users or anybody else involved in the drug business and I don't intend to reduce the pressure," diGenova said.
Asked about the possible use of dogs in neighborhoods where there is drug trafficking, diGenova said that "specific enforcement tactics are not a matter for which this office has responsibility. That is quite properly left to the chief and others."
Barry's and diGenova's remarks echoed their comments during yesterday's hearing before Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, on the D.C. prison system.
Barry renewed his request for the federal government to resume taking newly sentenced D.C. prisoners as a way to relieve the crowding in the city's prisons and to help ensure that the inmate population at the D.C. Jail will remain under the court-ordered ceiling of 1,694.
Jensen told Specter that he applauded Barry's determination to build a 700- to 800-bed prison in the District but that the city would have to provide short-term housing for inmates while the new facility is being built before the federal government would consider taking more city prisoners.
Jensen pointed out that the federal government -- whose own prison system is now at 47 percent over official capacity -- now houses 2,400 D.C. prisoners, and took "extraordinary steps" to help the city reduce the population at D.C. Jail. He said he does not believe the city is now operating under a similar crisis. "We are not in the position to become the prison of last resort for the District of Columbia," Jensen said.
"If they want a crisis, I can create a crisis," Barry said.
He later asked the federal government to take half of all newly sentenced prisoners and then scaled back his request to 500 prisoners over an indefinite period of time. But Jensen did not change his conditions.
"I think we have been reasonable . . . but nothing happens," Barry said. "I think they have the space."
"At some point, reasonableness has to stop," said Barry, noting that in his "olden days, I would have taken 500 prisoners down to the Justice Building, handcuffed them and left them in the hall."
Barry said the 1,600 prisoners taken into the federal system while the inmate transfer program was in effect were the "softies" in the system, those with shorter terms.
Statistics presented to Specter showed that 37 percent of D.C. prisoners now in federal institutions have more than 10 convictions and that 47 percent are serving terms of more than 10 years.