Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Fenty administration on Wednesday presented a crime initiative to crack down on gangs and clear the streets of illegal guns, creating an unusual dynamic of support from the D.C. Republican Party and opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Those with illegal guns, repeat offenders, drug dealers and gang members would go to jail more quickly and stay longerif Mayor Adrian M. Fenty´s Omnibus Anti-Crime Amendment Act becomes law. Mr. Fenty is a Democrat.

“Give our law enforcement agencies the tools they need to keep our streets and neighborhoods safe,” Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, said at a hearing of the D.C. Council´s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

The bill increases penalties for felons convicted of possessing firearms, allows for certain repeat violent offenders to be jailed before trial based on probable cause, changes the statutory definition of a gang to at least three members instead of the current six, expands qualifying offenses for DNA collection to all felonies, expands offenses subject to arrest without warrant and amends other crime-related legislation.

Robert Block, legislative counsel and staff attorney for the ACLU of the National Capital Area, said the bill poses a threat to civil liberties.

“The council needs to inform itself whether these civil injunctions [such as on gang members and repeat offenders] have been enforced elsewhere,” he said.

The committee, led by Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, heard testimony from Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, U.S. Attorney for D.C. Jeffrey Taylor and D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, as well as 43 other witnesses.

The bill, first introduced last fall, faces a long road. Mr. Mendelson projected that if passed by the council the bill would be available for the mayor´s signature in July - a time when it could not get federal approval because Congress is out of session. The law would unlikely take effect before fall.

Mr. Nickles said he would pursue emergency legislation if needed to get the law on the books in time for summer, the height of the city’s crime season.

“We need creative, forceful thinking about how to deal with crime,” Mr. Nickles said.

“New ways that they can carry out crimes requires new laws and this does that,” Chief Lanier said.

After the hearing, Mr. Mendelson denied assertions that he opposes the bill. “All of these provisions can help improve public safety and the criminal justice system,” he said late Wednesday. Mr. Mendelson also said he expected to move a version of the bill as emergency legislation, effective for 90 days.

Nonetheless, Republicans earlier Wednesday accused him of obstructing the bill.

“If Mendelson drags his feet, District residents will know that they cannot turn to the D.C. Council to address the never ending crime situation in our city,” said D.C. Republican Committee Chairman Robert Kabel in a statement before the hearing. “If Mendelson fails to act, he would even make Washington´s newest resident, President Obama, feel hopeless.”

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