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There’s no question that criminal justice systems are constantly in flux, adjusting to new legislation or making reforms to operate more efficiently. But over the past year, nearly every facet of Washington, D.C.’s justice system underwent monumental changes. To name a few: A new sentencing scheme was unveiled at D.C. Superior Court, permanently changing the way the convicted are punished; the number of attorneys available to represent indigent criminal defendants was pared down from 650 to 350 in response to declining arrest rates and to root out incompetent and crooked lawyers; and the financially troubled D.C. court system received a leadership makeover with the retirement of Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton and the resignation of Executive Officer Ulysses Hammond. As always, the federal government — primarily Congress and the Justice Department — presided over, and sometimes influenced, the reforms. The District has always been in a position of subservience when it comes to running its own justice system. With no vote on Capitol Hill, city and court leaders must contend with whatever hand the federal government deals them — both monetarily and legislatively. But a majority of the justice reforms over the past year can be attributed to the D.C. Revitalization Act of 1997, which transferred parole, probation, and corrections responsibilities from local to federal control. The law also gave Congress and the White House direct control of budget matters pertaining to the D.C. courts, the Public Defender Service, and the Pretrial Services Agency. Although the law has been in place for three years, the deadlines for transferring control of the agencies expired in August. “There’s no question it was an unusually busy year,” says Samuel Harahan, executive director of the Council for Court Excellence. “Some of it was just circumstance or the acrimony from growing pains of the revitalization plan’s implementation.” One of the mandates of the Revitalization Act was overhauling the District’s sentencing code to conform with the federal government’s “Truth in Sentencing” standards. For several months, the advisory sentencing commission, made up of D.C. residents and officials from every criminal justice agency, debated how best to satisfy the federal requirements without decreasing or increasing sentences. The effort was rushed because of funding and data collection problems. The final scheme left D.C. Councilman Harold Brazil calling for guidelines and the Public Defender Service claiming that the new code will ultimately increase the amount of time that offenders spend behind bars. The real winner of the sentencing reform was the federal government. Brazil and his D.C. Council colleagues approved a bill that included nearly all the changes, such as adding crimes to the list of those that carry a sentence of life without parole, that the U.S. Attorney’s Office sought. Those reforms had been rejected by the advisory commission. Another effort — aimed at getting a new parole, probation, and supervision agency certified by the federal government — sparked a heated debate over who should lead it. John “Jay” Carver, trustee of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, seemed like a shoo-in. After all, Carver, who ran the Pretrial Services Agency for two decades, was well on his way to achieving a promised 50 percent reduction of recidivism. Carver also achieved the impossible when he persuaded Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., R-Okla., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District, to fund a $17 million drug testing and treatment program. But Carver was shown the door when Grace Mastalli, an assistant to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., decided that Carver wasn’t federal management material. The decision triggered accusations of cronyism and power grabbing. Istook threatened to pull the funding. And the White House decided to let the next administration choose a leader for the six-year appointment. In another change of leadership, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Hamilton and his top administrator stepped down amid federal criticism of the court’s finances. Seven judges sought the chief judge seat in an unprecedented and public campaign. Judge Rufus King III, who ran on a platform focused on improving technology, was chosen by the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission to succeed Hamilton. Although Hamilton was on the way out, he didn’t step down until taking a parting shot at the court-appointed defense bar that practiced in Superior Court under the Criminal Justice Act. Citing a declining arrest rate, Hamilton cut the ranks of the CJA program by about 300 lawyers. Some defense lawyers say the move was retribution for complaining to Congress in 1998 about the court’s failure to pay them for several months — an action that led to an audit of court finances and management by the General Accounting Office. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams struggled to find a place in the city’s criminal justice system and nearly cost the District $18 million in crime victim funding. Williams’ troubles began when his public safety office was left without a manager or a staff for several months. Deputy Mayor Erik Christian, who was responsible for the office, was transferred to special counsel. Then the office’s chief of staff abruptly quit, leaving two detailees to hold the place together. Williams finally found Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, director of the D.C. Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), to replace Christian. Lost in the shuffle: The $18 million for the victims plan — an effort spurred by Congress’ move to absorb surplus funds from the D.C.’s victim compensation program. Only after a last-minute lobbying campaign by Kellems and victims’ advocates did Istook agree to let the District keep the funds. (The CJCC, made up of leaders of local and federal criminal justice agencies and touted as the vehicle for tackling some of D.C.’s most ingrained problems, went out of business on Oct. 1. Yet it is still meeting, and there are plans for Williams to fund it.) It’s still too early to tell whether all these changes will improve the administration of justice. For one, the U.S. Parole Commission is still struggling with its responsibilities in handling all D.C. parole matters. And don’t expect things to slow down in 2001. With George W. Bush moving into the White House, there is sure to be a slew of changes in the District, including new chiefs at the Justice Department and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Also ongoing are efforts to revamp the Superior Court’s Family Division and upgrade the court’s data systems. Making matters more unpredictable for the District: changes in the leadership of the D.C. subcommittees on Capitol Hill.

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