Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How Stupid Are We?

Let's see how long it takes you to solve the following problem, which is currently baffling the D.C. government:

D.C. law provides that, when it's time to release someone from jail, the release shouldn't take place between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am. That makes sense, right? Shoving an inmate out the door at 2:30 in the morning probably isn't the best way to reintegrate him into the community.

The only problem is that the D.C. Attorney General determined that the law is unconstitutional because it results in inmates having to serve a longer time in jail than their sentence -- only a few hours longer, perhaps, but longer nonetheless. And you can't hold people in jail once their sentence is up.

So, the jail is still releasing people in the small hours of the morning, which isn't good.

Hmmm . . . how could we possibly solve this problem?

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson has an idea that's almost a parody of big government solutions to problems: he's introduced a bill that provides that if the jail releases someone between 10 pm and 7 am, the jail must ensure that the inmate has a ride and housing and street clothes. If that can't be assured, the jail must release the inmate between 7 am and 10 pm.

Oh, no, warns the Attorney General, that will just lead to more unconstitutional holding of inmates after their sentences are up.

Sheesh! I mean really, sheesh! How can we be arguing about this! Is the D.C. government really so dumb that it can't see this has a completely obvious solution?

Here's the solution: let the D.C. Council pass a bill that says that if an inmate's sentence is up between 10 pm and 7 am, the sentence is automatically deemed to be shortened to the point where it is up at 4 pm. In fact, let's apply that rule to any inmate whose sentence expires after 4 pm. We'll let inmates out a few hours early. Everyone gets out no later than 4 pm.

Obviously it makes no difference in terms of giving the inmate an appropriate punishment, and it makes sense in terms of letting them out in a civilized way.

Gosh, that was easy. What's the problem? I am really stunned that this seems to be a big to-do when the solution is so obvious.

And by the way, are sentences really calculated in hours? Why do sentences expire at 2:00 am anyway? I guess perhaps they run from the moment someone is taken into custody, so that if they were arrested at 2:00 am, then the sentence expires at 2:00 am. OK, fine, I guess I can see how the problem arises, but the solution is so simple I really can't believe the D.C. Council is tied up in knots over it.


Peter said...

Your tax dollars at work.

Anonymous said...

Um, prof, sentences don't expire at 2 am. Either sentences expire on a specific day when there's a time certain, or the expire when a person goes to court and a judge says they are released, which usually happens sometime between 9 am and at the latest 7 pm. The problem is the jail doesn't get around to releasing people until after 10 pm. No other urban jail in the country has this problem.

Anonymous said...

What the other anonymous said, except DC is not actually the only city to have struggled with this. Los Angeles had an even worse problem in the 1990s (they routinely got around to releasing people after midnight -- two or three days after the judge gave the release order); until 2006 New York City's Rikers Island often released prisoners in the middle of the night (although they consistently gave prisoners a ride to the nearest all-night subway station and two tokens); and Ann Arbor is currently grappling with the same problem from the other direction (the jail finishes the paperwork the day before, so prisoners can legally leave the jail at 12:01 am and often want to).

Eldon said...

Peter Nickes is a joke, and never should have been given this job. He is the elitist friend of the elitist Mayor, and his days as AG are numbered. His snide comments are indicative of his "holier than thou" attitude. Does he live in DC, as the city law mandates?

Jon Siegel said...

Thanks for these comments -- let me look into this issue further.