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Mayor’s Gun Crime Plan Set Without City Council Approval

On February 6th, Mayor Bowser announced that she “and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu reaffirmed their commitment to prosecuting illegal firearms and violent crime cases in the District of Columbia . . . [and] also expressed . . . support for the U.S. Attorney’s strategy of prosecuting cases in federal court for felons illegally in possession of guns” – or, more succinctly, “to hold convicted felons accountable for possessing illegal firearms.”

When we first read what the mayor set out in her statement, we had a positive reaction to the plan, especially that this initiative “will ensure more repeat, violent offenders are held accountable for committing gun crimes in the District.”

Further, how could we argue with the stated rationale that “[t]hrough the partnership, the USAO [U.S. Attorney’s Office] will also leverage federal resources, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and U.S. Marshals, to support MPD and the Department of Forensic Sciences with complex criminal investigations.” But, we can ask why the present legal arrangements do not allow for our own AG to prosecute those cases involving repeat adult gun crime offenders. Unfortunately, unlike anywhere else in the country, the feds have authority to prosecute major DC adult crimes in Superior Court as well as in federal court. A spokesperson for our AG’s office pointed us to the following from Wikipedia:

“Unlike the states, District of Columbia is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. By statute, the U.S. Attorney is responsible for prosecuting both federal crimes and all serious crimes committed by adults in the District of Columbia. Therefore, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia serves as both the federal prosecutor (as in the other 92 U.S. Attorneys’ offices) and as the local district attorney. The Attorney General of the District of Columbia, who is elected by the people of the District, handles local civil litigation and minor infractions only.”

Given that our AG lacks the authority to investigate and prosecute violent gun crimes committed by adults, then it would have been incumbent on the mayor to advocate for changing the current law governing this jurisdictional anomaly by enlisting the participation of our city council and delegate to the House of Representatives toward returning to DC jurisdiction for prosecuting major adult crimes that had been lost to the feds two decades ago. Clear;ly, such an outcome will not be possible during the next two years, but at some point it may very well be. Meantime, the groundwork needs to be started. Prosecutions of all local crimes should be in our local courts.

But even before the February 6th announcement by the mayor, aspects of the plan –- reportedly drafted by the new, Trump-appointed Liu and now apparently signed on to by Bowser –- have been coming under attack, such as the effect these prosecutorial changes would have on young, repeat offenders between 18 and 25.

As noted by The Washington Post in its extensive February 5th report, “Under the D.C. Youth Rehabilitation Act, defendants convicted between the ages of 18 and 25 in D.C. Superior Court can be opted out of mandatory minimum sentences, a law that does not exist for judges and offenders in the federal system, prosecutors and defense lawyers said.”

Raising a red flag concerning this , Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, issued the following statement:

“. . . they may not be eligible for programs aimed at helping returning citizens and young adult offenders, including last year’s reform of the Youth Rehabilitation Act and record-sealing and expungement. These are not simply feel-good gestures, but important tools to reduce recidivism in violent crime and ultimately make the District a safer and more just place.

“We have to be honest with ourselves: we cannot hope for improved public safety outcomes by locking people up for longer without providing rehabilitative services and a path forward for returning citizens. Twenty-two years ago, the District made a terrible bargain to cede all control of our justice system to the federal government, and it has had lasting and destructive consequences that we must undo.”

So, while turning these prosecutions over to the feds where mandated minimum sentences for gun crimes — even for just illegal possession — is far greater than under DC law, the mayor is playing into the hands of a “lock ‘em up”-loving Trump.

We completely concur with what At-large Councilmember  Robert White in his statement of the 6th:

“I am disappointed and disturbed by the Mayor’s announced rollback of local control over our criminal justice system. . . . I cannot support any proposal that effectively eliminates local control over the criminal laws that apply to hundreds of our residents. If the administration would like to propose harsher criminal sentencing and reduced access to local programs for sealing and expungement, then the proper forum for that debate is before the elected legislative representatives of our residents, not in closed door discussions with federal prosecutors that have no accountability to our residents.”

In closing, we think the following as reported by the Post, neatly points out why it is that the mayor has unthinkingly and without regard to the consequences hurt the city:

“Monica Hopkins, executive director for the ACLU of the District of Columbia, criticized the move to shift the cases to federal court as a ‘shortsighted, reactionary move’ that ignored that past tough-on-crime approaches have resulted in mass incarceration, not more public safety.

“‘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,’ she said. ‘Mayor Bowser is making an end run around the public and the [D.C.] Council and ceding more power back to the federal government.’”