Much of what is proposed in the mayor's plan for judicial autonomy for the District of Columbia makes sense. A local prosecutor or district attorney should prosecute local crime. One important aspect of the plan, however, is seriously flawed. The local prosecutor should be elected by the people, not buried three levels down in a huge bureaucracy.
As the plan is currently written, the district attorney would not even be appointed by the mayor, but would instead be appointed by the proposed "attorney general," who would in turn be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.
The district attorney should be elected for several reasons:
Crime is too important to be left to the bureaucrats. Electing the local prosecutor would give the problems of crime and the criminal justice system the visibility and the airing they deserve. An election would provide a forum within which to debate the issues, and there are a number of issues that should be discussed, such as:
-- why 50 percent of all serious felony cases are dropped by the prosecutors, even though that also appears to be the pattern in other major cities;
-- why witnesses and victims and citizens with complaints seem to be merely tolerated by the system; and
-- why the court appears to be a "revolving door," or why 7 percent of the offenders constitute 24 percent of the criminal workload of the court.
An elected prosecutor would also provide the criminal justice system with a new kind of leadership -- the kind that only someone with an elected mandate can provide. Even if the proposed attorney general could provide the leadership, his other duties would of necessity take priority. As the chief legal adviser to the mayor and the city council and the chief legal officer for the District, the attorney general will, as a practical matter, have very little time for crime problems.
Virtually all district attorneys in the country are elected. If indeed the argument is that we ought to have a court system similar to most states and have an increasing measure of self-determination and authority in those areas that are basically local in character, then our local prosecutor ought to be elected.
Interestingly, the mayor's plan suggests that the district attorney might be elected in the future but that, for some reason, we are not ready for that step yet.
An elected local prosecutor would provide an important check on the rest of local government. An elected prosecutor would be more likely to investigate official corruption than would an appointed bureaucrat. If we have learned anything about prosecutors in the last few years, it is that they must be independent.
Finallly, it would appear that under the mayor's plan the attorney general would frequently find himself embroiled in conflict-of-interest situations. For example, the attorney general would be called upon to prosecute a police officer for alleged police brutality, and then be required to defend the District and the same police officer in a civil suit for damages.
The District ought to have an elected local prosecutor. The citizens of the District of Columbia can be trusted with the vote on this most fundamental purpose of government.