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Over the next two years, the D.C. Council will be addressing a number of serious issues—reviewing labor contracts, investigating police misconduct, prodding pothole repair. And, oh yes: defining the meaning of “life.” Like all weighty philosophical puzzles, the issue was delegated to a commission, which will report back to the council in a few months with its findings.

The commission won’t be studying Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, though. The meaning of “life,” in this case, refers to prison terms. As it currently stands, folks sentenced to life can die in their cells or get out whenever a parole board decides they’ve seen the light. But thanks to meddling from the District’s congressional overseers, by Aug. 6, 2000, the D.C. Council must decide with some precision what it means to serve a life sentence in prison. Other states have spent years and millions of dollars coming up with a satisfactory answer to questions like whether a life term means 50 years or 99 years.

But with a September deadline looming both for the definition of life and for dozens of other major changes in the criminal justice system, the District’s sentencing commission, which is charged with doing the legwork of revamping sentencing, has no money, no staff, and no visible means to accomplish its mission. “They’re a bit, if you will, impotent,” says Samuel Harahan, executive director of the Council for Court Excellence. Yet if the commission—and by extension, the city’s elected officials—fails to do the work, the District’s federally appointed judges will do it themselves. It’s a prospect that could have disastrous implications for crime and punishment in D.C.

In 1993, the D.C. parole board released Leo G. Wright after 17 years of a 20- to 60-year murder sentence. Out on the street, Wright got right back to his old habits, shooting heroin, snorting cocaine, and selling drugs. The parole board knew but didn’t do anything. Just before Christmas of 1995, he held a knife to the throat of 26-year-old human rights attorney Bettina Pruckmayr, robbed her, and hacked her to death. Pruckmayr’s family and friends called for radical changes in the justice system.

In the fall of 1997, they got what they wanted: Congress’ D.C. rescue bill transferred financial responsibility for the city’s corrections system to the feds, simultaneously stripping D.C. of its ability to set most felony penalties. The city was forced to adopt a new “truth-in-sentencing” system requiring felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences without parole. If the D.C. Council didn’t comply, Attorney General Janet Reno was to craft her own plan for the District without any local input. Locals, who believed setting criminal statues is a sacred local function, were outraged. “I cannot tell you how profoundly disgusted I am with the result of this,” said D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Few could argue that D.C. penalties weren’t already severe. D.C. inmates already served an average of 78 months for violent offenses, twice as much time as any other American prisoners. Almost half of the city’s young black men have been locked up at one time or another. But neither that statistic nor the falling crime rate—let alone the prerogatives of home rule—mattered to the feds.

Reno appointed Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder to head up a study group that identified which crimes should fall under the new system. The council last spring passed legislation requiring anyone convicted of any of 37 different felonies after August 2000 to serve a fixed sentence, with no parole.

Forcing prisoners to actually serve out their entire sentences may seem like a good idea in light of past parole board failures. But in instructing the city to completely overhaul its enormous criminal sentencing system in a mere 18 months, Congress was laying the groundwork for yet another District disaster. “These are massive undertakings in other places,” says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the nonprofit Sentencing Project. A brief look at D.C.’s system shows why:

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Current statutes provide a wide range of sentencing options. For instance, “Burglary 1” penalities could range from probation to 30 years’ imprisonment. Right now, a judge merely picks a minimum and a maximum term within that range—say, three to 10 years—and then lets locals on the parole board see how it goes. If the defendant behaves himself, gets his GED, and undergoes drug treatment, the board can release him after three years. But if he assaults the guards or starts riots, the parole board can force him to serve the entire 10.

Under the new system, however, if the judge sentences, say, a 21-year-old kid to 25 years in prison, that kid will serve 25 years, minus a year or two for good conduct if he’s lucky. No one will review the case 15 years down the road to decide if perhaps this kid, now a 36-year-old college graduate, deserves a second chance. The problem, say critics, is that this new method vests all sentencing power in one federally appointed official—the judge. A biased or inept judge could perfectly legally give one convict probation while throwing the book at another for the same crime. “Do you really want judges to have that much power?” asks Harahan.

And the new sentencing structure could also be a nightmare for the corrections system. While increasing the prison population, truth-in-sentencing statutes remove most incentives for inmates to behave well in prison, because good behavior has little bearing on the time they serve. And if the prisons are overcrowded with two-bit drug offenders, the city won’t be able to parole a few geriatric inmates. It will have to find more space no matter what—an expensive and unwieldy proposition.

Although Congress has mandated a Draconian judicial face lift, the city still has myriad specifics to attend to. For instance, it can still create sentencing guidelines to ensure that those fixed terms won’t be wildly different for comparable crimes. And drafting those guidelines takes lots of work. “It’s both a sentencing issue and a social policy issue, as well,” says Mauer.

Once the proposals are drafted, the council must pass them into law, they must be signed off on by the mayor, and then the judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors must be trained in the new procedures. And this is all supposed to happen before the new sentencing scheme takes effect in 16 months. “We have our work cut out for us,” says Ramsey Johnson, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney.

To remake an entire sentencing system, the D.C. Council needs to know some fundamentals: how long the sentences now being given are, how much of those sentences people actually serve, and how the new sentencing will affect the corrections system. Theoretically, the sentencing commission is supposed to provide that information, except that the data haven’t been collected, and it will take lots of time and money to do so. Those are two things the commission doesn’t have.

According to a D.C. Council source, Congress forced the council to create the sentencing commission after the annual budget was already done, and there was no way to add money for the commission until the next fiscal year. But in early 1998, Holder’s original sentencing commission had spent only $30,000 out of the $750,000 it was given by Congress. It voted to give the remaining funds to the city’s successor commission. Unfortunately, that money ended up instead under the control of the D.C. courts, which finished last year with an $8 million budget shortfall after refusing to cut spending. The courts refused to make the funds available for the city’s commission despite repeated requests from the council. Court Executive Officer Ulysses Hammond did not return a call for comment.

In light of the city’s dilemma, the Justice Department recently asked the Urban Institute think tank to do the commission’s research. Adele Harrell, director of the program on law and behavior, says the institute doesn’t even have a grant yet for the study, which will need 30 researchers and at least half a million dollars to get the first projections to the council by its September deadline. She is critical of city officials for not making the commission more of a priority. “They have known about this deadline and the need for this information for well over a year,” she says.

Indeed, the District seems to be in denial about the breadth of work that lies ahead. Almost four months after receiving the marching orders, the sentencing commission charged with drafting the new guidelines still doesn’t even have all its members. “This may be the most significant change in the criminal justice system in 25 years,” says Harahan, who is worried that city officials have neglected the issue. “It’s going to be a mess.”

Given that the city has so little control over its own justice system, says one council source, the city’s failure to exercise what control it has is inexcusable. Under new Chairman Harold Brazil, the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee—which is supposed to shepherd the new rules into law—looks a bit like the sentencing commission: understaffed, leaving observers to wonder who’s watching the ship. Brazil did not return a call for comment, and his press secretary said he was not sure whether Brazil had yet created a plan for the commission.

Given the amount of chaos and uncertainty swirling around the issue of local sentencing, the Sentencing Project’s Mauer suggests that the District officials should beg Congress for more time. “Why not do it right when the implications will affect the District for the next 20 years?” asks Mauer. CP