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In a hearing this afternoon, Superior Court Judge Melvin R. Wright strongly criticized the District for failing to comply with a 2003 law requiring the city to cap the D.C. Jail population.

The agony over the D.C. Jail’s population dates back to at least 1975, but this particular conflict has its roots in a law passed by the D.C. Council in 2003 that required the mayor to “establish by rule the maximum number of inmates to be held at any one time” at the jail. A consultant hired by the city in spring 2004 to determine the number came back with a range between 1,958 and 2,164 inmates.

Still, the recommendations in hand, the city did nothing. Now, a suit filed in 2005 seeking to have the city comply with the 2003 law has finally come to a head; in August, Wright granted summary judgment and ordered the District to set a cap in writing by today’s hearing.

Well, set a cap the city did: In a filing earlier this week, the city announced its intention to set the cap at 3,198 inmates—-more than 1,000 above what its own consultants recommended as an upper limit for the jail population.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Theodore A. Howard called the figure “a number that has no relation to anything.”

Earlier the attorney general’s office had argued that separation-of-powers issues prohibited the Council from setting a cap—-specifically that the cap inhibited the mayor’s power to “allocate resources” as he sees fit.

Wright showed little patience with the city’s arguments in today’s hearing. “I don’t understand at all the Distict’s position,” he said.

City attorney Andrew Sandon Saindon said, “It’s a political decision. It’s a dispute between the executive and legislative branch.” Wright took the opportunity to give the courtroom a civics lesson and ask Sandon why, if the executive branch had such a big problem with the bill, didn’t the mayor veto it.

Wright said the District’s argument have “no merit” and gave the city until next Friday to comply by submitting a number within the suggested range—-“not an arbitrary number that you think you can justify”—-lest it face contempt-of-court proceedings.

“The District of Columbia…has the same obligation to obey the law that any individual citizen does,” Wright told Sandon. “The fact that the mayor or the Department of Corrections doesn’t like the legislation is not a reason not to obey.”

Deborah Golden, a lawyer with the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, which is helping to litigate the case, expects the city to take their arguments to the D.C. Court of Appeals, further delaying the implementation of a meaningful cap. “We’re frustrated,” she says, “that this will take more time.”

CORRECTION, 10/8: Due to an error by reporter Mike DeBonis, city attorney Andrew Saindon’s name was misspelled.