The push for mandatory sentencing began in 1981 when public unrest over drug sales in neighborhoods had reached fever pitch and the author, City Council member John Ray (D-At Large), was running for mayor.
City officials held prayer meetings to mourn the deaths of overdose victims. Police used a city water truck to hose down heroin markets and formed a special Narcotics Task Force. Voters, who for years had complained about drug trafficking near their homes, clearly wanted to do something about what they saw as a revolving-door system of justice.
In March 1981, the City Council held hearings on proposed revisions to the District's criminal code and Ray suggested they include mandatory minimum prison terms for certain crimes.
In one exchange, then-U.S. Attorney Charles F.C. Ruff said, "The history of mandatory minimum sentencing in the narcotics area is one which I think ought not to give us any great optimism that either it will somehow more justly distribute the impact of sentencing or bring a halt to narcotics trafficking."
Ray countered: "I say the only way you are going to get after them is when you can make sure that when they violate the law, they are going to be hit and they are going to be hit hard."
The council changed the law, making a single drug sale a felony instead of a misdemeanor beginning in August 1982. But it rejected Ray's call for mandatory prison terms, and he wrote the law as a voter initiative that appeared on the ballot Sept. 14, 1982, the primary in which Ray unsuccessfully sought the Democratic mayoral nomination.
Initiative 9 was backed by some civic groups, police officers and then-Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson, who saw it as a deterrent and weapon against drug sellers. Other groups -- including the mayor's office, the city's Corrections Department, the U.S. attorney's office, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Urban League -- objected, arguing it would not deter drug sales but would strain city prisons and obstruct judicial discretion.
Initiative 9 passed 84,012 to 32,333.
Opponents cited an antidrug measure that was enacted in 1973 in New York state and declared a dismal failure three years later after expenditures of more than $30 million. Prosecutors brought fewer cases for indictment, the conviction rate fell and the courts became clogged despite an addition of 31 judges.
More recent laws in Florida and Massachusetts set mandatory sentences for drug trafficking, but for amounts far greater than those commonly involved in D.C. prosecutions. An offender in Boston, for instance, is subject to a minimum of three years in prison for cocaine distribution, but only if 28 grams or more is involved. A D.C. violator can receive a mandatory minimum of 20 months for a street sale of a $10 packet containing 0.1 gram.
Prosecutors in Boston seek mandatory minimum sentences in about 100 drug cases a year, compared with nearly 3,000 indicted here last year.
Joseph Rosenbaum, narcotics chief for the state attorney's office in Miami, said about 1,000 mandatory minimum cases are prosecuted there a year, but, "it's not putting a dent in it. As long as people are demanding it, there will be people willing to take the risks for those big bucks."
Most mandatory sentencing laws deal with repeat offenders or, as in Maryland and Virginia, crimes committed with firearms.
Washington's law, in addition to prescribing penalties for drug distribution, mandated minimum prison terms for violent crimes committed with guns. When the law was being debated, the gun issue captured much of the attention. However, The Post found in its study that this provision is rarely used. Prosecutors estimated that the gun law is applied in about 150 indictments a year, and in most the sentencing requirement is eliminated through plea bargaining.
This result was foreseen by then-U.S. Attorney Stanley S. Harris, who in an April 1983 letter told Ray that enforcement of the law would hinge on whether guns involved in crimes actually worked and whether they were recovered, which rarely happens.
Prosecutors, along with Ray, unsuccessfully sought changes that would allow greater flexibility for judges and prosecutors and clear up ambiguities in the law.
"We felt that the voters had spoken and we were going to live with that," said City Council Chairman David Clarke, and the law went into effect unchanged on June 7, 1983.
Today, some officials argue that the take-it-or-leave-it initiative process resulted in a badly flawed law.
"I do not believe that initiatives are a good way to legislate criminal law," said U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova. "Frequently they are not carefully crafted. I do not like it. I do not approve of it. I think it is dangerous."
Once the law went into effect, months passed before judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers were fully aware of how it worked. Meanwhile, they groped for answers as they sentenced violators.
The sentencing of Earl B. Lee, a 29-year-old addict, before Judge Nicholas Nunzio led to this Jan. 31, 1984, exchange over the law's exemption that enables addicts to receive drug treatment instead of a mandatory minimum prison term.
"How do I handle that aspect of it, get a presentence report?" asked Nunzio. "It almost makes it look like it's a judicial determination the first time around."
"That new initiative doesn't set out any procedure," replied Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Thomas. "There is existing in the code -- I can't remember where -- the term 'drug user.' I don't know whether the City Council intended the court to rely on that definition in applying this waiver or not, and the office is about as fuzzy on it as I am."