D.C. Draws Down Federal Prosecutions For Felons Caught With Guns

Don Petersen

Washington, D.C. has seen 172 homicides so far this year, a slight increase over 2020’s already elevated totals. Yet the District is pulling back from a program that diverted many cases of felons caught illegally possessing firearms to federal court, where they face stiffer sentences for their crimes compared to being prosecuted in D.C. Superior Court.

The effort was first announced in 2019 by then-U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu and Mayor Muriel Bowser, but quickly ran into criticism from activists who complained that a disproportionate number of arrests and prosecutions were taking place in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Those critics weren’t successful in forcing the city to reverse course, at least not right away, but as the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. reports, the flood of cases being sent to the U.S. Attorney’s office has now slowed to a trickle.

In the first year of the initiative, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted 129 felony gun cases in U.S. District Court, a sizeable increase from 2018. The caseload remained high in 2019, with approximately 80 cases. But federal records reviewed by the I-Team show a significant falloff in 2021, with just 20 cases filed between February and September.

In a court filing submitted in a federal case in March 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office told a judge the Justice Department was “engaged in a rigorous review of the felon-in-possession initiative’s value and impact.”

In the same filing, the agency said it intends to continue “to review and monitor the initiative’s impact and will consider if further modifications are necessary beyond those already implemented.”

The program’s critics include the District’s Attorney General Karl Racine, who says it’s a “a good thing” that those charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm are “being brought to (face) local law, not federal law,” because local judges have more flexibility in sentencing. Of course that “flexibility” was one of the main reasons for the initiative in the first place, as folks like Mayor Bowswer pointed to light sentences that were being handed down, even for those with violent felony convictions to their name. Now Bowser’s not saying much at all, though it sounds like she’s not happy about the shift back to local courts.

Bowser’s office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. During an unrelated public appearance Wednesday, Bowser said changes to the 2019 initiative are “absurd.” She declined to directly answer a question about whether she was briefed about a change in strategy by federal prosecutors but said she would have further discussions with them.

She should really be talking to Racine and his team of prosecutors, because he’s been complaining about the initiative since it began, and I have a sneaking suspicion that his office has had a major role in the decline of federal prosecutions. In 2020 Racine even sided with a two men who were hoping to move their case out of federal court.

Racine’s office argued that by bringing all “felon-in-possession” gun cases to U.S. District Court instead of D.C. Superior Court, the initiative is undermining D.C.’s home rule authority. Racine’s office also said the policy disproportionately harms African American residents, who are more likely than other demographic groups to have prior felony convictions and to face longer prison sentences.

… “The U.S. Attorney’s policy to prosecute local gun crimes in federal court intentionally sidesteps our local courts, thus denying offenders the benefits of these reforms, and reverts to a failed federal tough-on-crime approach,” Racine said in a statement. “The District has strong laws to punish felons in possession of a gun and must be allowed to enforce them without interference.”

So, a “tough-on-crime” approach won’t work, according to Racine, yet the District has “strong laws” in place that “punish felons.” Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like double-talk on the part of the District’s top prosecutor? By the way, Racine is perfectly happy with the federal government imposing new regulations and criminal penalties, but he’s been much more vocal about going after the firearms industry rather than the individuals pulling the trigger of their illegally-possessed guns.

That may be a more politically expedient position in Washington, D.C., but it’s not going to help the District combat the growing number of shootings and homicides. Racine can complain all he wants about taking a “tough-on-crime” approach to violence in D.C., but I’d argue it’s much more effective and constitutional than the “tough-on-gunmakers” philosophy he’s espousing.