Plan to Prosecute D.C. Gun Cases Faces Scrutiny

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser endorsed a plan to prosecute D.C. defendants on federal gun charges rather than under local law. Photo by AFGE/Wikicommons

Khary Armster, Howard University News Service

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said a plan to prosecute D.C. defendants on federal gun charges rather than under local law was adopted without appropriate supporting data and without significant input from local officials and D.C. residents.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser endorsed the plan, which was proposed by Jessie K. Liu, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. But, Racine said, there were no public hearings and no input from the head of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety before Bowser signed onto the plan.

“We should be driven by data. We should be concerned [that] folks made decisions without supportive data,” Racine said on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU radio.

“We’ve just decided to hand over a large swath of cases that were going to be prosecuted in D.C. courts to the federal court,” Racine added, “and we decided it through a process that did not invite D.C. residents to participate in that decision-making.”

D.C. criminal homicides, nearly all of which are gun-related, rose 40 percent in 2018. This year, there were 55 as of the end of April, about 30 percent more than at the same point in 2018.

The new strategy “will enable us to leverage local and federal law enforcement resources throughout the District from the ground level up, giving us an opportunity from the very start of a case to try to find out where these firearms are coming from, how they’re being used and what we can do to prevent further violence,” Liu said in describing her approach to reporters.

She said it was a “homegrown” plan developed in discussions with D.C. authorities.

But Racine, the District’s top elected law enforcement official, said he had not been consulted, and nor had Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the public safety committee.

Bowser said she had worked with Racine to launch a separate anti-violence and workforce development program designed to address problems contributing to gun violence.

“We know that guns have a devastating effect on families, neighborhoods and our entire city. Reducing this violence requires an approach that’s not just specific to law enforcement, but also focused on human services and the community,” the mayor said.

“I support the U.S. Attorney’s strategy and believe it will send a clear message that violence will not be tolerated in the District,” Bowser said as Liu formally announced the plan in early February.

Under the District’s limited home-rule form of government, assistant U.S. attorneys prosecute local felony cases. Liu’s office has indicated that under the new system, it expects to handle 350-400 cases in federal court rather than in D.C. Superior Court.

Defendants tried under federal statutes can face mandatory minimum sentences of five years for some gun-related offenses, but those sentences can be significantly shorter if the cases are prosecuted in Superior Court.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the strategy initiated by Liu and approved by Bowser undermines local efforts developed to curtail more incarceration and avoid longer-lasting damage from previous criminal conduct, but also provide more treatment for drug addiction, a major factor in violent D.C. crime.

“It sounds great. ’Oh, they’re going to throw the federal book at all these people’,” Mendelson told The Washington Post. “All I can see is maybe there will be longer sentences and maybe not. Putting them under the federal system will not make a difference in reducing crime.”

“It’s a lot of drama that will have a little effect,” the Council chairman said.

“This sort of decision warrants a public discussion about the impact this change will have on D.C. residents, our judicial system and those who are accused of gun-related crimes,” Monica Hopkins, director of the D.C. office of the ACLU, told The Post. “Mayor Bowser is making an end run around the public and the Council, and ceding more power back to the federal government.”

Arthur B. Spitzer, legal co-director in the office, said Liu’s approach was “a bad idea.”

“The federal court is likely to offer harsher punishments,” Spitzer said in an interview. “We’re not against taking legal action against crimes, but sending people to prison for longer periods of time is not a great use of time.”