With crime down in D.C., the council should consider new tools to curb violence

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

IT MAY SEEM incongruous for D.C. lawmakers to submit a crime bill when the District is experiencing a historic drop in the crime rate. As welcome as the plunge is, certain neighborhoods -- among them Shaw, Anacostia and Columbia Heights -- continue to bear the brunt of the violence that persists. The legislation sponsored by D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is aimed squarely at giving the law-abiding residents of violence-racked neighborhoods a chance at peace and safety. The bill should be given a prompt and fair hearing to assess the impact of several provisions.

The legislation proposes to increase penalties for PCP use and distribution and includes victim and witness protection measures. But the cornerstone is a proposal that builds on existing public nuisance laws to clean up neighborhoods.

Current law allows the city to target specific properties that constitute a public nuisance, including those commonly used as drug or prostitution dens. The proposed bill would permit individuals to be targeted for drinking alcohol, gambling or urinating in public or for interfering with others' "comfortable enjoyment of life or property." Obstructing or impeding the use of or access to public and nonpublic spaces would also run afoul of the law. These last provisions are clearly meant to get at gang members who congregate on street corners, parks or even in public shopping centers and intimidate others.

Under the proposal, the U.S. attorney, the D.C. attorney general or community groups would have to prove to a D.C. Superior Court judge by a "preponderance of the evidence" that a person or persons were causing a nuisance; if the court agreed and issued an injunction, the alleged perpetrator would have to be served and put on notice that continuing the behavior could result in a fine or jail time of up to 30 days.

The D.C. Council dealt poorly last year with a different measure aimed at eradicating gang activity by authorizing civil gang injunctions in certain troubled parts of the city. Misinformation abounded, and the risk to civil liberties was greatly exaggerated; the legislation ultimately failed. There is much that still needs to be debated about the public nuisance proposal at hand. We hope that debate is thorough, civil, accurate and fair.

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