D.C. to Allow Local Prosecutors to Try Cases in Federal Courts

Washington, D.C. local prosecutors will be allowed to try misdemeanors in federal courts effective this month, a move that will allow federal officials from the District’s U.S. Attorney’s office to focus their efforts on prosecuting violent felony offenders in Washington, D.C.

Under the new plan, the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) will supply nearly $1.2 million to the D.C. Attorney’s office, which consists of local prosecutors. This money will allow for the D.C. Attorney’s office to loan eight prosecutors to the federal U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C. to assist in prosecuting the District’s non-violent crime.

The justice system in D.C. has been almost entirely run by federal officials since the 1990s, when D.C. Mayor Marion Barry , Jr. (D) ceded local control over its prosecutions and incarcerations to federal prosecutors as a condition of being bailed out by the federal government.

Bowser, United States Attorney for the District of Columbia Channing Phillips and D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced these changes in a memorandum of understanding dated Sept. 29.

At the live-streamed announcement releasing the memorandum, Racine lauded the cooperation of their offices in order to achieve this deal.

“These efforts where we combine our best brains together and figure out what we can do to try to keep people safer is really government at its best,” Racine said.

A rising homicide rate for the second year in a row as well as other increases in crime have spurred Bowser’s efforts to increase the efficiency of criminal prosecutions and thereby reform the city’s criminal justice system. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, the D.C. homicide rate in 2015 increased by nearly 55 percent from the previous year with 162 murders occurring in last year.

According to the Washington Post, currently federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office investigating non-violent crime in D.C. can expect to simultaneously handle 150 misdemeanor cases, which drastically decreases their efficacy.

The eight new attorneys who will be loaned to the U.S. Attorney’s office under the deal should allow federal prosecutors to dedicate more time and resources to their higher-level cases. The federal prosecutors can then place greater focus on cases involving more violent and dangerous criminals than those in misdemeanors.

Bowser said she hopes increasing the number of crimes local prosecutors can deal with will result in a larger ratio of convictions of violent criminal offenders. Last month, Bowser characterized the previous system of federal persecution of local crime as inefficient.

“We are unique in that the prosecutors don’t report to the people,” Bowser said at a press conference Sept. 7. “They don’t report to me, either.”

The D.C. Council rejected Bowser’s tough-on-crime proposals expanding police powers. In May, Bowser vetoed the council’s ideas of paying criminals not to commit crimes. As a result, not many measures to reduce crime have been implemented, despite the rising crime rate.Bowser said the agreement is a major step for the city as it attempts to tackle its crime problems. Bowser also approved of how the agreement would allow D.C. to regain more power to try its own criminal cases.

“This is one example of the District stepping up to the plate in making sure that we’re making the investments needed, but also demonstrating that we can be an active partner and a fiscal partner in our criminal justice system,” Bowser said.

Georgetown Law Professor Abbe Smith, who serves as the director of the Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, said she remains skeptical of the new plan’s ability to achieve greater fairness in criminal trials, but she said the importance lies in the fact that the change provides greater autonomy for the District.

“I think the significance is that it respects the District’s democratic processes in electing an attorney general, a local prosecutor. You could say that the attorney general prosecuting crime is another step towards home rule in the District of Columbia,” Smith said. “I think it’s probably more important theoretically than it is practically because it doesn’t really matter which agency prosecutes crime unless there’s fundamentally different ideology.”

Georgetown University Police Department Chief Jay Gruber said he supports the strategy, as local city prosecutors will be better primed to work on non-violent cases. Gruber noted that Washington, D.C. still needs greater efforts to combat crime, but the agreement marked a step in the right direction.

“I think local prosecutors are better equipped to handle local cases like this, so I think it’s a very good move,” Gruber said. “I think time will tell if it’s an effective move, and if it’s the right move, but I do think it’s a good start.”

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