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.
In a statement, Racine linked the stance of Bowser and Shea to “problems of overincarceration and racial inequities” that the city has aimed to resolve with data-driven criminal justice reforms.
“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.”
A spokesman for Newsham referred questions to the mayor’s office, which issued a statement by Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Kevin Donahue that did not directly address Racine’s concerns.
“Gun crime by repeat violent offenders continues to be one of our most challenging public safety issues,” Donahue said, adding: “We support efforts by our law enforcement and criminal justice partners to ensure dangerous and illegal firearms are kept out of the hands of people legally prohibited from possessing them. Our residents demand nothing less.”
Officials said Racine’s office did not consult with the others before taking its legal position.
“The District of Columbia is facing a serious violent crime problem, particularly increased shootings and a stubbornly high homicide rate,” Shea said in a statement. “We have to do whatever we can to address this problem, including the prosecution of convicted felons who are caught carrying guns in violation of federal law. A felon with a firearm is a threat to public safety.”
Racine’s position was filed Tuesday in support of two District defendants represented by the Federal Defender’s Office of the District and seeking to dismiss their cases in federal court.
Racine said he “voiced his disagreement” with the policy when it was publicly announced in February 2019 by Shea’s predecessor, Jessie K. Liu, with Bowser and Newsham’s support.
At the time, Donahue said the crackdown was aimed at a relatively small number of repeat violent offenders, namely those “who not only have been convicted of carrying out serious gun violence, but continue to carry it out.” Newsham has said that nearly half of charged murder suspects in the city have a prior gun arrest, and that firearms offenders generally commit new crimes sooner, at higher rates, and at later ages than others.
But Racine said the move to bypass local courts was based on unwarranted concerns about Superior Court judges’ handling of such cases.
“I have not seen the data, the evidence that suggests public safety has been enhanced by moving cases away from D.C. Superior Court,” Racine said in an interview. “If it does exist, I’m interested in seeing it.”
Shea’s office has said that from February through December 2019, 114 people were indicted on “felon-in-possession” charges, an increase from 83 in all of 2018. However, only 46 pleaded guilty or convicted at trial.
Federal prosecutors have charged another 34 cases so far this year, but the most recent case was filed March 12, shortly before the federal courts halted grand juries for the coronavirus emergency. Shea’s office did not immediately comment on the reason for the pause or if it was temporary.
The impact on crime is unclear.
The District ended 2019 with 166 murders — a decade high and up 4 percent from 2018, before the policy was phased in.
So far in 2020, assaults including shootings are up, and the number of homicides remains at the same pace, despite stay-at-home orders since late March in response to the pandemic.
However, since early March the number of robberies has plummeted by a third. Property crime increased by 27 percent and violent crime by 16 percent in the same time, as street traffic has declined and people remain in their homes.
Liu last year described the refocusing of federal law enforcement resources as a “homegrown” option that emerged in talks with D.C. authorities over how to combat the city’s escalating violence.
The changes echo prosecutorial actions last used widely in the District in the 1990s and the priorities of the Justice Department under the Trump administration. Crime rates were far higher then, as were tensions over how much influence federal officials should have in local affairs.
Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.