Friday, March 5, 2010

Chief Judge Speaks

Last night, the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, Convention Center Community Association, and Blagden Alley Association co-hosted a public forum with the Chief Judge of the D.C. Superior Court, Lee Satterfield, who was joined by his colleague, Judge Ronna Beck.  Here are five points and observations that I found particularly interesting.

1. While D.C. Superior Court judges are appointed by the President, there is a misconception that some (or most) are not from the District.  Comments from Councilmember Jack Evans earlier this week suggested that D.C. Superior Court Judges are from places like California.  According to Chief Judge Satterfield and Judge Beck, that just is not true.  There is a residency requirement for D.C. Superior Court judges -- all must live in D.C.  Most, including Chief Judge Satterfield, are from the District and have spent their entire careers practicing law here.  In addition, the selection process, which relies on the recommendations of a nominating committee whose members are appointed by the President, Mayor, DC Council Chair, and Bar (known as merit selection) is among the best systems for appointing judges (nonpartisan, qualifications oriented, not subject to campaign fundraising).  That does not change my opinion that, as a matter of principle and home rule, the District, not the President, should select its judges and have more control over its criminal justice system, but it does provide some degree of comfort.

2. The District has little sense of what occurs in its own criminal justice system from a 30,000 foot perspective.  At a meeting that included Councilmembers Mendelson and Evans several months ago, there was frustration that the Council (and DC citizens) have no way of knowing what happens after the arrest.  How many of say gun cases were no papered, pleaded down, went to trial, resulted in acquittal or resulted in convictions?  How often are DC's strong mandatory minimums actually applied?  What is the average sentence for gun possession (i.e. is there actually a revolving door)?  I was disappointed to find that the judges also appeared to lack hard numbers.  The Chief Judges' law clerk may follow up with me with what statistical information is available, but this type of information should be readily available to the public, members of the judiciary, and legislators.  There is a substantial amount of such information available for the federal courts through the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.  And, note to our Councilmembers, right now, BJS is giving out money to the states to develop their own statistics (applications are due March 19).

3.  If there is one area in which the judges felt the District's criminal justice system could improve, it is in juvenile justice.  Some interesting facts.  D.C. Superior Court judges have no role in sentencing JV offenders - it is up to the District government and JV's know it.  The District's JV facility is too small and overcrowded, which may result in early releases when filled past capacity.  While there is a JV facility for boys, there is no facility for girls.  Judge Satterfield suggested the need for a larger JV facility with more educational programming.

4. The District's criminal laws are quite strict.  With the exception of possession of an unlicensed firearm (pure possession, no crime associated), most gun and other violence crimes are subject to mandatory minimums of 5 years for the first offense, 10 for the second offense.  Some are significantly higher, such as15 years for armed carkjacking.  Judge Beck noted that the mandatory minimums are a useful tool for prosecutors in reaching plea agreements.  That said, there are also many cases in which defendants proceed to trial and the judges do in fact impose the full sentence as required by law.  Judge Beck also noted that the negative aspect of mandatory minimums is that it eliminates judicial discretion and there are some situations in which they can be viewed as too harsh.

5. The District has no control over those who it puts in prison.  The District closed Lorton Correctional Complex in November 2001, scattering its inmates among federal prisons across the country.  While the District saved money in making this move (tranferring the expense to the federal government), there is also a downside.  The District has no role in the rehabilitation, training, or education of DC residents who are sent to prison.  They may come back worse than they went in.  D.C. residents who are sent to prison are effectively sent to Siberia.  Being cut off from their families may cause further tears in the District's social fabric.