NAACP Police Task Force Urges Amendments to Sentencing Bill
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NAACP Police Task Force Urges Amendments to Sentencing Bill

June 16, 2000

The Honorable [All Members]
Council of the District of Columbia
Washington, DC 20001

Re: Bill 13-696, "Sentencing Reform Act of 2000"

Dear Councilmember:

The Council is about to consider legislation brought about by Congressional intervention that will profoundly change the criminal justice system in the District of Columbia. The undersigned organizations have grave concerns about the latest version of Bill 13-696 and how the legislative process has been managed.

The original version of Bill 13-696, which was the subject of a Judiciary Committee hearing on May 11, 2000, made clear that the shift to the Congressionally mandated determinate sentencing system was to have been based on the proposals of the Advisory Commission on Sentencing. To our great surprise, we now find that the version of Bill 13-696 released by the Judiciary Committee (the Committee Print of May 24, 2000) goes well beyond the original version of Bill 13-696. While we had serious reservations about the original bill, we strongly object to what amounts to a "bait and switch" tactic to introduce measures not proposed by the Advisory Commission.

The Committee Print of Bill 13-696 alters the Commission's proposals in three critical areas:

Enclosed is an analysis of those changes prepared by the Public Defender Service.

At a minimum, the Council must reject this "bait and switch" maneuver and return Bill 13-696 to its original version that incorporated the proposals of the Advisory Commission. This can be done by adopting amendments proposed by Councilmember Chavous.

The legislative atmosphere has been polluted not only by the "bait and switch" but by name calling.

Councilmember Harold Brazil, in his e-mail "Weekly Update" of June 8th, accused the Public Defender Service of "disingenuously play[ing] the ‘race card.'" Mr. Brazil said that PDS was "linking the disparate number of African-Americans in the criminal justice system to the pending sentencing bill." While Mr. Brazil acknowledged the accuracy of PDS' statistics on the numbers of black men involved in the criminal justice system, he argued that "[c]oncerns that the legislation will result in longer sentences are unsupported and unfounded."

In a slick, multi-colored brochure designed to garner public support for his version of Bill 13-696, Mr. Brazil effectively admits that such "concerns" are all too real. In a section titled, "Will sentences be longer under the new system?," Mr. Brazil says the "[Advisory] Commission will provide training for judges and other parties to help ease the transition to the new sentencing structure, including information on historical practice. Judges will be able to convert today's typical sentence to a fixed length of time that approximates the actual prison time offenders currently serve." If the shift to a determinate sentencing system is not likely to result in increased prison sentences, why is it necessary for judges to be trained to avoid that outcome? Absent some remedial measures, the adoption of Bill 13-696 is likely to result in longer prison sentences and that impacts disproportionately on the District's African American citizens. Accusing PDS of playing the race card is disingenuous and worse.

All sides to this debate seem to be in agreement that the adoption of a determinate sentencing system should not result in longer prison sentences. The question is what to do to avoid that outcome. We support the training of judges in historical sentencing practices, promised by Mr. Brazil, but that is not sufficient. Bill 13-696 must state that the Council does not intend to increase prison sentences. The Bill must also incorporate guidance to judges that reflects historical sentencing practices. These critical corrections are contained in an amendment to Bill 13-696 that Councilmember Chavous will be introducing. We strongly urge you to support that amendment.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of this matter for the citizens of the District of Columbia. We regret that the consideration of this very complex subject has been made more difficult by a distortion of the legislative process. At the same time, we are confident that because you are committed to protecting the best interests of our citizens, you will support the Chavous amendments to Bill 13-696.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Mark Thompson
NAACP Metropolitan Police & Criminal Justice Review Task Force
and on behalf of the following organizations

Mary Jane DeFrank
ACLU of the National Capital Area
Ron Hampton
National Black Police Association

Eric Lotke
D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project
Quentin Driskell
National Conference of Black Lawyers

George LaRoche
National Lawyers Guild
Bob Summersgill
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance
of Washington, D.C.

Pauline Sullivan
DC CURE
Anne Marie Staudenmaier
Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless


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