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Get Out of Jail....When?

It's 10 p.m., does the District know where its jail inmates are?

Right now there's a city law that says jail inmates can't be released between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles let it be known this week that he wants it repealed. He told Council Chaiman Vincent C. Gray in a letter that the city has been the subject of two class-action lawsuits dealing with "over-detention," (which is when an inmate stays in jail past midnight on the day they are supposed to be released according to court order). The first lawsuit against the District was settled in 2005 for $12 million. Then plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit in March 2006 on the same issue and that case is pending.

"The continued operation of the cutoff provision is exposing the District to million of dollars of liability," Nickles wrote in the Jan. 17 correspondence with Gray, that was copied to every councilmember.

Government liability is an issue Nickles knows quite well, since long before he became a city bureaucrat, he spent decades filing lawsuits against city government. He was one of the attorneys representing mentally ill patients seeking treatment from the city, and was know for castigating the city for its treatment of juvenile offenders when he worked on the class-action Jerry M. lawsuit.

His solution for making sure that jail inmates are let go on their day of their scheduled release? Declare the current law unconstitutional and tell Department of Corrections Director Devon Brown that he shouldn't follow it anymore. Alas, there is another way, Nickles suggests. Have the council revive a 2007 bill that would have removed the cutoff provision and had the jail give inmates taxi vouchers if they had no other transportation. That bill went nowhere, Nickles wrote.

What does Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), Chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, think about Nickels proposal? The first paragraph of his letter to Nickles today makes his feelings plain. "I am appalled," he wrote.

He accused Nickles of wanting to repeal the law--- which he said Nickles has no power to do as the attorney general, "simply because you don't like it." The law was passed to improve conditions for inmates, not to restrict them. "Releasing inmates at midnight out the back door of the jail, into a neighborhood where there is no transportation and no other facilities to assist inmates is not in their best interest."

At the time the law was signed, Mendelson said, inmates were being released without ID's, "and still wearing their jail uniforms."

Mendelson's six point letter saves this zinger for last. "Finally, your focus should be on the realistic goal of meeting the curfew, rather than repealing it."

Mendelson suggested that meeting curfew could be more likely if the correction agency pressed the court and U.S. Marshals to return inmates to jail earlier so they can be processed for release long before 10 p.m.

"It is not for you to decide and direct which laws will be followed," Mendelson said.

Nickles said in his letter that he's willing to wait until the Council's March 4 legislation session to see if they take any action. We'll be watching too.

Theola Labbé-DeBose

By Theola Labbé-DeBose  |  February 20, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Browse By Writer , Crime and Public Safety , D.C. Council , Theola Labbé-DeBose  
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