The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. attorney in New York announces push to bring down ‘alarming’ gun violence spike, bypass state system’s bail laws

Acting U.S. attorney Seth DuCharme on Wednesday in New York.
Acting U.S. attorney Seth DuCharme on Wednesday in New York. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and partner law enforcement agencies are ramping up efforts to combat gun violence in parts of the city, hoping to circumvent state bail laws that have made it increasingly likely that gun suspects will remain at liberty while charges are pending.

The plan, announced Wednesday by acting U.S. attorney Seth DuCharme, comes in response to “an alarming rise” in shootings throughout the city that has significantly decreased quality of life for residents of those areas, the officials said.

“Law-abiding citizens should have no reason to fear going about their daily lives,” DuCharme said at a news conference at the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York.

Neighborhoods with a high rate of violent crime are now “an environment too permissive” of such conduct, the office’s top prosecutor said. Shooting incidents across the city have risen 90 percent this year compared with the same time period last year, according to the most recent available New York Police Department data.

In Brooklyn, in Queens and on Staten Island, about 70 percent of individuals charged with gun offenses in the federal system are held on bail pending trial, compared with about 22 percent of those charged with gun crimes in state court, DuCharme said, referring to recent data compiled by his office.

Under state law, judges can consider only risk of flight when determining whether to impose bail, while in the federal system a judge can factor in a person's level of dangerousness to the community.

While gun charges are eligible for bail under a new state law that took effect at the start of this year, policy shifts have seen a marked increase in the number of defendants who are released without bail or who have bail set much lower than previously seen.

DuCharme suggested that a lack of consequences has contributed to the increase in gun violence — a sentiment echoed repeatedly in recent months by NYPD officials and critics who say bail measures and other changes to the criminal justice system have gone too far.

FBI Assistant Director in Charge William Sweeney gave an account that he said exemplified the problem — an instance when a mother hid her children under a bed after hearing a shooting in a nearby park. “Stunningly, this is a reality for far too many people in this district,” Sweeney said, adding that his agents are “focusing on individuals who are driving the crime in our neighborhoods.”

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said detectives who were part of a disbanded, controversial anti-crime unit — whose mission was to take guns off the streets by closely tracking crime — are still looking for guns on patrol in the areas they previously worked.

The new push will involve a more concerted use of federal gun statutes, including carrying a firearm in connection with a crime of violence, which carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence between five and 10 years, and possession or receipt of a firearm or ammunition by a prohibited person.

Efforts are also underway to bring gun cases quickly — while agents, detectives and prosecutors monitor action on the streets. Some federal arrests handled in the Eastern District have been made recently within 24 hours. Federal investigations are typically broader, involving many defendants, and can take months or years to pull together.

“I’m signing indictments every week that relate to violent crime,” DuCharme said of the frequency of cases hitting his desk.

The Eastern District has appointed 12 senior prosecutors who have a background in handling violent-crime cases. About 40 prosecutors will be handling these cases as part of the expanded Rapid and Strategic Prosecution Initiative, launched a year ago.

DuCharme said efforts in his office — along with work by the FBI; the NYPD; the U.S. Marshals Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Department of Homeland Security — have already proved successful. The work is an extension of the Justice Department’s Project Guardian, a national initiative to address gun violence.