Channing D. Phillips is acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

How should prosecutors treat nonviolent misdemeanors? As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, proceedings in most nonviolent misdemeanor cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia were paused last year. In a Post op-ed last month, three Georgetown Law professors urged that this moratorium continue after the pandemic subsides, arguing that such prosecutions “inflict enormous harms” while resulting in “little good.” While well-intentioned, this recommendation is misguided.

First, it disregards the negative impact that criminal offenses have on District residents, and particularly on crime victims. Many misdemeanor offenses, whether committed against an intimate partner or against a stranger, make it harder for District residents and visitors to feel and be safe in their homes, businesses and neighborhoods.

Many victims of these offenses feel strongly, and understandably so, that the crimes against them should be prosecuted or, at a minimum, that there should be some form of accountability on the part of the offender. This can be true even where the crime is “nonviolent,” such as theft, violation of a stay-away order or destruction of property.

Second, while I agree with the assertion that many of the crimes are crimes of poverty, and thus symptoms of larger systemic issues, the solution is not simply to ignore or give a pass on the behavior. Instead, we should try to address the conduct that led the person to offend in the first instance. In this regard, our office is a national leader in advocating for rehabilitative-focused alternatives to traditional prosecution for many people who have committed misdemeanor offenses.

In addition, our prosecutors individually analyze every case presented. We do not file criminal charges following many arrests — particularly where the offense involves low-level conduct or where the defendant has a limited criminal history. When we do file charges, we decide whether to charge felonies or misdemeanors. Where key factors — such as victim wishes, limited criminal history and acceptance of responsibility support leniency — we frequently exercise discretion to charge or plead as misdemeanors those crimes that meet the elements of felony offenses.

And, for many misdemeanor offenses, we offer diversion so defendants can enter rehabilitation-focused programs, offering targeted help to the accused and the opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction.

For example, we have long collaborated with other District entities to treat defendants’ underlying drug addiction and mental health challenges, which can contribute to criminal behavior. In partnership with the Pretrial Services Agency, we refer many defendants charged with misdemeanor and some felony offenses to the D.C. Superior Court Mental Health Community Court or the Superior Court Drug Intervention Program, commonly called Drug Court. These voluntary treatment courts connect defendants suffering serious mental health issues or drug addictions to qualified treatment providers, with the goal of treating these individuals and keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

We also partner with the superior court to offer many defendants charged with misdemeanors the opportunity to complete community service, provide restitution to victims and not commit any new offenses for an agreed-upon period in exchange for dismissal of their cases.

Additionally, we work closely with the superior court’s diversion program, which offers defendants charged with misdemeanors the chance to avoid a criminal conviction by engaging in educational or employment programming. Defendants who complete these programs obtain a high school diploma or its equivalent, and are connected with career counseling programs.

We continually evaluate potential expansions to these diversion programs, which in 2019 alone benefited more than 1,200 defendants. For example, last year we expanded access to the Mental Health Community Court to defendants accused of domestic violence offenses. We also expanded access to diversion for first-time defendants accused of certain felony offenses, offering them a pathway to a clean record. Past participation in diversion, whether successful or not, no longer acts as an automatic bar to future participation.

This year, we are working to start restorative justice programs that allow victims and defendants to speak openly about crime and its effects. And we are also working to begin a diversion program focused on veterans, who often deal with unique challenges when they leave military service.

We support efforts to prevent crime, but also recognize the importance of accountability when those prevention efforts are not successful. We must acknowledge that crime affects everyone, and that our response must hold defendants accountable, while empowering them to make different choices in the future.

Sometimes, traditional tools of prosecution, including incarceration, are necessary. But frequently in misdemeanors, alternative approaches may work best. We will continue to use all the tools we possess to address the needs of everyone in the criminal justice system, regardless of offense, while keeping in mind: The correct response to crime is not to ignore it.

Read more: