The Justice Department will allow local D.C. prosecutors to try hundreds of misdemeanors in federal court, hoping to free up more experienced federal prosecutors to focus on convicting violent offenders of felonies, officials said Thursday.
The move, which takes effect in October, marks a new strategy for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is confronting an elevated homicide rate for the second year in a row.
Bowser and the D.C. Council have agreed on almost nothing about how to respond to the uptick. The mayor proposed a package of tough-on-crime measures last year, but the council rebuffed it. The council responded with a plan to pay troubled youths to join a mentoring program, but Bowser declined to fund it.
Under the new effort, Bowser will send $1.2 million annually to the D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, enough to cover the costs of loaning eight attorneys to the U.S. attorney’s office.
The complicated personnel shift, which required approval by the Justice Department, means that, for the first time, local prosecutors will handle a significant number of crimes committed by adults in D.C.
The justice system in the nation’s capital has for centuries been split between local and federal control. And it has been almost entirely run by federal officials since the 1990s, when the District abdicated its authority over nearly every aspect of prosecutions and incarcerations as part of a financial bailout under Mayor Marion Barry Jr.
Bowser and outgoing Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier have criticized the structure in recent weeks, with Lanier calling the system “broken” and unable to keep repeat violent offenders off the streets. Bowser also characterized the federal prosecution of local crime as problematic during a news conference this month, saying, “We are unique in that the prosecutors don’t report to the people. They don’t report to me either.”
On Thursday, however, Bowser, Racine and Channing Phillips, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, appeared together to announce the plan at an event live-streamed over the Internet. Phillips called the plan beneficial for everyone.
“It’s a win-win for the city; it’s a win-win for Mr. Racine’s office and a win-win for our office because we have more resources,” Phillips said.
A typical federal prosecutor assigned to D.C. street crime may handle up to 150 misdemeanor cases at a time, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. The office did not specify how many felony cases a single prosecutor may juggle at any one time.
The misdemeanor cases would be transferred to the attorneys from Racine’s office, which is now only authorized to prosecute juveniles.
Racine said he hopes it’s a first step to D.C. eventually regaining authority to prosecute all crime in the District.
“In the long run, notwithstanding Channing Phillips being our friend, we’d like to have the local attorney general prosecute local offenses,” Racine said. “So this is good for our lawyers to get in there and start practicing at the level of the U.S. attorney’s office.”