Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Frank Discussion on Crime

Last month, a post on this blog led with a quote by Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chairs the D.C. Council's Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, "Violence in Shaw is not a legislative problem."  Last night, Mendelson, to his credit, came out to the that neighborhood to explain his view, discuss what he has done and continues to do to address crime, and respond to the safety concerns of his constituents.

Mendelson began by sharing two actual case studies.
Person A, age 60, has been arrested 26 times (19 as an adult and 7 as a juvenile) for 2 stolen autos, 1 robbery, 2 for carrying a gun, and 5 for drug dealing while armed.  He was most recently charged and found guilty of carrying a gun in May 2009.  Of the 26 arrests, there were only 3 guilty verdicts and 2 not-guilty.  The rest were dismissed or "no papered."
Person B, age 27, has been arrested 20 times (19 as an adult and 1 as a juvenile) for murder, 2 assault with a deadly weapon, a carrying a gun, and 8 for drug dealing.  Most recently, he was arrested for 1st degree murder (in January 2008, but dismissed by the U.S. Attorneys Office).  Of the 20 arrests, he was found guilty on 2 and not-guilty on 2.  The rest were dismissed or no papered.  
One might assume both of these fellas are doing hard time.  No.  Person A was sentenced to 12 months after being caught with a gun, all time suspended.  The U.S. Attorneys Office dismissed 1st degree murder charge against Person B.  Apparently, two of Bs brothers pleaded to 2nd degree murder.  In other words, A and B are walking the street today.  They are likely armed and dangerous.

Mendelson's Exhibit A was intended to show that the Council can pass law after law without solving the revolving door problem, which may lie with shoddy evidence, plea bargains, poor prosecutorial discretion, or judicial rulings and sentencing.

Not everyone saw it that way. 

"This is an embarrassment - you should be ashamed," a resident of the 1200 Block of 7th Street  repeatedly stated. 

The resident, who has had three shootings on his block in the few months he has lived in the neighborhood, noted that he holds the members of the Council and the Mayor responsible. 

Why?  Because when he goes to the polls, those are the names on the ballot -- not the prosecutors or judges.  "It is the Council that is responsible for running the city, structuring the criminal justice system, and holding police, prosecutors, and judges accountable," he exclaimed. 

Therein lies the rub. 

The District's quasi federal-city status leaves it in a situation where major crimes are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorneys Office (federal), not the D.C. Attorney General or the District Attorney that we do not have.  There's no requirement that the U.S. Attorney or federal prosecutors live in the District.  Judges are appointed by the President of the United States to 15-year terms, not the Mayor.  They can come from anywhere in the country. 

While representatives of the U.S. Attorneys Office frequently testify on legislative proposals before the D.C. Council, there is no true city oversight of its prosecutors or its courts.  The city makes the laws and polices the city, but it is left out of the final steps of the process - bringing charges, prosecuting cases, and sentencing. 

Mendelson's Exhibit B was a list of 33 pieces of legislation passed by the Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary during the four years he has served as chair.  He offered it to show that he does, indeed, in some cases, believe crime is a legislative issue.  Generally, the list was not compelling.  It included a dozen bills  unrelated to the type of violent crime of concern in Shaw and many other communities, such as white collar insurance fraud, dishonored checks, animal cruelty, and littering.  It also included items that have little to do with crime at all, such as a bill to improve jury service (which I testified on).  That's not to say that some of the omnibus bills that ultimately passed have no teeth.  I'm sure some provisions have made a difference.

There was plenty of finger pointing, but on to some of the highlights of some proposals:
Loitering.  Mendelson committed to looking at a Chicago-style anti-loitering ordinance, moving away from his longstanding opposition to such laws as a violation of liberty.  His commitment came in response to the type of situation raised by a resident in which a group continuously hangs out on his corner.  Public drinking quickly escalates to fist-fighting, then to shootings.  If the police would get involved earlier and ask them to move on, then the violence might be avoided.   In order for such laws to be constitution, Mendelson believed, they must be limited in area and duration.  Some residents, however, find 5 and 10 day drug-free zone type laws just silly.  Why isn't it always a crime-free zone, they ask.  As an alternative, I suggested to Mendelson that rather than an arbitrary 5 or 10 day period that requires significant MPD paperwork to obtain, that the Council grant the police enhanced power to address loitering at any location in which there has been X calls for service to 911, Y arrests for guns/drugs, or Z reports of gunfire through Shotspotter within the past month for the following month.

Safe Passage to School Law.  Mendelson recently sponsored this bill with the support of all members of the Council. It will create a no loitering zone in posted areas around schools. In response, DC Attorney General Peter Nickes, however, said the safe passage bill is "not an effective way to deal with ... the real problems." "I think it's halfhearted, ineffective and has legal problems," Nickles told The Examiner.

Civil Gang Injunctions.  Mendelson continues to feel they are counterproductive.  Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) supports them, at least on a trial basis in Ward 2.  Today, Evans who participated in the forum, will introduce a bill that again proposes such a measure, as well as a new gun court and nuisance law (anti-loitering).

Funding Gang Intervention Groups, such as the Peacaholics and Alliance of Concerned Men.  Mendelson commented that the District has given too much money to such programs without adequate performance measures.  While these groups may do a lot of good, I wholeheartedly agree that accountability for public funds is sorely lacking.  Taxpayers (and the Council) need to know how the money is spent and what results are achieved to understand whether the city would more effectively spend such funds on job training programs, extended recreation center hours, or mentoring programs, or more police officers.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety.  Mendelson criticized Mayor Adrian Fenty's elimination of the position of Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, which was established under Mayor Williams.  That position, Mendelson commented, coordinated efforts between the federal and city governments and forced them to sit down at the table and communicate.

Addressing the revolving door.  While almost everyone seems to acknowledge that violent criminals get arrested repeatedly and remain on the streets (the representative of the U.S. Attorneys Office seemed to be the only one who took issue with this representation), no one can put their finger on WHY?  What happens after arrest is "amazingly opaque," said Mendelson.  While citizens (and policy makers) can, at the touch of their laptops, pull up data for an area on arrests, calls for service, and shots fired, what happens after an arrest is a mystery.  What percentage of arrests are "no papered?"  Is that a result of shoddy police practices, lack of evidence, or some other reason?  How many of those arrested for 1st degree murder actually serve the "mandatory" minimum already set by the Council?  What percentage of those arrested are charged with a lesser offense or released because of a plea deal?  Where does the responsibility lie and how can lawmakers, prosecutors and judges improve the criminal justice system?  I suggested that if the District lacks needed data to back sound public policy decisions with respect to crime, it ought to establish an agency/office such as the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics to track local arrests, prosecutions, and sentencing.  Mendelson seemed supportive of that idea.  He suggested that he may seek funding from the DC Council and speak with Evans about it.

Why is DC so different?  Borderstan questioned why DC’s murder rate is 4.56 times higher than that of New York City, noting that other crimes follow the same pattern.  While DC has made progress in recent years, it remains leaps and bounds away from other major cities with respect to the prevalence of violent crime.  There was no explanation offered.

What's the U.S. Attorneys Office going to do differently?  In a terse exchange, Evans demanded that a representative of the U.S. Attorneys Office, Albert Herring, answer this question in light of the community's frustration.  There's was no response -- other than, "we prosecute crimes to the fullest extent of the law...."

Home Rule.  Evans noted that both he and Mendelson support the District gaining control over its courts.  It would cost $120 million annually.  While such a proposal was considered (and died in Congress) years ago, the Council and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton have not pushed such a proposal under the Obama Administration and a Democratic Congress.  There was no discussion of whether they support establishing an elected District Attorney or additional Home Rule with respect to prosecution of cases.
So, what did the meeting accomplish? 

Mendelson seems closer to lending his support to a broader anti-loitering law, has already backed a school-zone loitering law, and wants funding to examine the District's revolving door. 

Evans has an anti-gang bill due out today, which Mendelson should give a timely hearing and fair consideration. 

Mendelson and the U.S. Attorneys Office both got an earful.  One can hope that what they heard will add vigor to their efforts and give them helpful perspective in their decisionmaking.


Yalie said...

Does the district have it's own prison system? Or does the fact that the federal court does the sentencing mean our convictions serve time in the federal prison system?

I'm clearly very dismayed by hearing the ineffectiveness of the USAO on our behalf. But district income taxes are already NINE percent and it makes me uncomfortable to hear us possibly pulling back hundreds of millions in expenses into our budget. In the end we're just a city and for us to have to have all the infrastructure of a state feels wasteful.

Joel Lawson said...

Thanks for the thorough coverage, Cary.

Overall, a disappointing session of civic theatrics in which an elected official feeling some heat decides to point his finger.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

Ultimately, I took away that there are no good, quick answers to this issue--which didn't seem to sit well with many in attendance. Mendelson's approach (seeking to obtain detailed data on the criminal justice system in DC in order to address concerns) is a good approach, but is far too late in coming. That violent offenders are getting off with little or no jail time has been an issue in DC for as long as I can remember. I think a lot of the frustration in the room stemmed from the fact that we were talking about an issue that people have long been aware of, yet no one has stepped up to address. Hopefully that will start to change.

The individual who really came out looking poorly in all this, IMO, was Jack Evans. His tense exchange with the U.S. Attorney was nothing more than a transparent political cheap shot. Mendelson and the U.S. Attorney took some well-deserved heat, but Jack's performance was dreadful.

Unknown said...

The Citizens say please help stop the crime. The Politicians say, its not our fault, we are putting forth legislation. The Cops say, legislation doesn’t work and its not our fault, it’s the Courts. The Courts say, it not our fault, we are prosecuting to the full extent of the law. While they are all busy passing the buck, the shooting, rapes, break ins, and muggings continue. What a pathetic lack of leadership and accountability.

JamesR.6th and R.

Sarah said...

Lots of good info to follow up on--thanks!

CCCA Prez said...

CMs Evans and Graham submitted their new anti-crime legislation yesterday. This has been uploaded to files on the Shaw listserv: -- Neighborhood and Victims Rights Amendment Act of 2009 - (Word.doc and pdf). It should also be searchable on the DC Council site in the next few days.

It's now time for all the "angry" citizens (and even those who aren't particularly angry) to read it, send questions to Ruth Werner or Sherri Kimbel in Mr Evans office; make suggestions to nuisances in Sec. 102. Public Nuisance Abatement, (4); and then start sending emails, letters and CALLING the other At-Large CMs to encourage their support.

For all the necessary Council contact info, go to: http://www.dccouncil.us/

Mr Evans' staff should keep us updated on all relevant upcoming public hearings on this draft bill.

I'm told that Chief Judge Satterfield is usually very eager to attend civic meetings as his schedule permits. Now that his office has received a formal invitation, we are simply waiting to hear about his availability. We might consider holding a special CCCA meeting date if that accomodates his schedule.

Mr Catania told me last night that he is also very interested in coming to at CCCA meeting soon next year. Although Ms Bowser has not yet signed on as a co-sponsor of the latest draft (as she did on the gang civil injunction bill by Mr Evans) she also told me last night that she is willing to take time to meet with the CCCA outside of her very rigorous schedule attending the many community meetings she regularly attends in Ward 4. I think her perspective as another Ward Councilmember will be very valuable for Shaw residents to hear.As of October 25, in Ms Bowser's Ward 4 there were 612 calls for sounds of gunshots all in a concentrated portion of the ward, while there were merely 250 calls for gunshots in Ward 2 concentrated primarily in and around Shaw. We have fairly precise Shotspotter technology in Shaw while I don't know if that technology is used in Ward 4.

Please feel free to cc' the CCCA (and our ANCs)on your emails to the Council. We look forward to seeing all the angry and peace loving neighbors at our meetings next year.