The new top federal prosecutor in Washington is standing by a Trump-era Justice Department policy of charging certain gun crimes in federal court instead of locally, continuing an initiative that draws stiffer prison sentences and has concerned some city leaders and advocates of criminal justice reform.
The “felon-in-possession” policy, announced in January 2019, also has the backing of acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III, spokeswoman Kristen Metzger said this week.
The decision, outlined in court filings, surprised advocates who expected the Biden Justice Department to depart from the Trump administration’s position that previously targeted three predominantly Black areas of the city to reduce gun crime.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) has opposed the policy, saying it bypasses D.C. laws and exacerbates the problems of mass incarceration and policing in Black communities.
“Local autonomy in the District, at its most basic level, means that local offenses should be prosecuted under District law and in our local court,” Racine said in a statement.
“We’ve raised this matter” with Phillips, he added, and “look forward to having the opportunity to persuade him of our position.”
D.C. Council members have also criticized the initiative for undercutting local gun laws. Unlike other cities with local or state prosecutors, D.C.’s governance structure means the U.S. attorney handles serious local crimes.
The initiative diverts certain gun cases from D.C. Superior Court to U.S. District Court, where federal prison sentences are harsher than those prosecuted under local laws.
Phillips, who is leading the office until a new U.S. attorney is confirmed, declined to comment through a spokesperson because the issue is the subject of a pending case. He laid out his position in response to an order from U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in the case of John Victor Reed, who has asked the court to dismiss the “felon-in-possession” charge against him.
Prosecutors defended the government’s practice and said the office “has never prosecuted all of its felon-in-possession cases” in District Court as it initially indicated it would try to do, according to the court filing.
The initiative began by targeting three police districts with a high number of homicides and illegal guns. But in August 2020, confronting racial justice protests nationwide and internal criticism, the government shifted to a citywide approach to make charging decisions based on criminal history and prior gun offenses or violent crimes.
Prosecutors have said they have discretion to choose their venue and continue to charge cases in both District Court and Superior Court. Between Feb. 1, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, the office charged 87 “felon-in-possession” cases federally and 217 locally.
Contee, the acting police chief, told the D.C. Council at a hearing last week that he will be strategic and “laser-focused” on violent offenders to deal with rising gun crime in the city.
Last year, 198 people were slain in the District; 172 of the victims them died from gun violence, and 11 were children. An additional 750 people were wounded by gun violence in the city, according to Contee’s testimony.
In District Court, Reed’s lawyers have argued that the initiative unlawfully undermines the authority of local gun laws and unfairly prevents defendants from seeking pretrial release in local court.
Harvard law professor Andrew Crespo, one of Reed’s lawyers, said it was disappointing that the new leadership of the U.S. attorney’s office was retaining an approach that has been “widely criticized by people who are fighting for racial justice and racial equity in the District and who care about D.C. rights.”
“There’s a broad consensus that mass incarceration doesn’t work and doesn’t make us safer,” he said. “President Biden said that his first week in office and he is right. But this is straight out of the old mass incarceration playbook that President Biden was criticizing a few weeks ago.”
The government’s assertion that it is now targeting only people deemed violent, Crespo said, is inconsistent with its decision to keep prosecuting his client in federal court. Reed’s only previous conviction was nearly 30 years ago for a nonviolent offense.
Before he retired, Reed worked as a manager for an organization that provides services to seniors. The 62-year-old has asthma and high blood pressure and spends much of his time with his five grandchildren, according to court filings arguing for his release pending trial.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.