The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime last week held a hearing to explore the issue of the District of Columbia’s high crime rate, and what can be done to dramatically reduce it.

As a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, but also one who worked in several other district attorney’s offices around the country, I was asked to testify.

I noted the five factors driving the crime explosion in the city. The No. 1 problem is the use of guns by felons.

At the hearing, ranking member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said that we need to get “to the core of the violence in the city.” To her credit, she also said that we need to “get violent criminals off the street.”

No kidding. Tell that to the current U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Matthew Graves.

The quickest way to tackle the illegal gun crime problem in Washington, D.C., is for Graves to prosecute every single felon in possession of a firearm in federal district court under 18 U.S.C. §922(g), under which most, if not all, felons would get prison time.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, of the 64,142 cases prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) in fiscal 2022, 97.4% were sentenced to federal prison. The average sentence for all Section 922(g) offenders was 63 months, just over five years. The length of sentence depends in large part on the criminal history category of the defendant. Some 15% of Section 922(g) offenders were convicted of one or more statutes with a mandatory minimum penalty.

I noted during my statement to the committee that if Graves prosecuted career felons in possession of a firearm in federal district court, they would get a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years, knowing from experience the standard type of criminal history D.C. career felons have that would expose them to long prison sentences. 

Jackson Lee felt the need to “correct the record” by stating that I was wrong in that there is no “mandatory minimum for federal gun possession.” But that’s not what I said.

I focused on felons in possession, not mere gun possession by non-felons.  I stated that “use of guns by career felons is a huge problem in the city.”

“Career felons” are, by definition, criminals who have amassed a long criminal record, including a record of violent crimes. That’s a fact in the District of Columbia. I know from experience that there are a lot of career criminals in the District. They rack up tons of criminal history points that, when prosecuted and convicted in federal district court, amount to high criminal history categories, which in turn result in lengthy sentences.

Clearly, Jackson Lee and her staff seemed not to know this.  

Instead of prosecuting career criminals caught with a firearm in federal district court, where the vast majority would end up in prison upon conviction, Graves sends those cases to D.C. Superior Court, knowing full well that most of those career felons won’t go to prison. 

As D.C. Police Union Chairman Gregg Pemberton testified, last year members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department arrested approximately 3,100 people in possession of illegal firearms.  No doubt, many of those were felons.  He stated that judges are not imposing lengthy prison sentences for those convicted of illegal possession of a firearm, noting that the “average sentence that judges are handing out right now for that is six months of supervised probation, which is zero jail time.  That is the going rate.”  

The maximum punishment under the D.C. Code is five years.  Pemberton noted, without a hint of irony, that “it doesn’t seem like the city takes gun crimes seriously as they suggest, given the fact that the courts are not penalizing people who are found convicted of those crimes.”

Every stakeholder in the D.C. criminal justice system knows these facts. You can’t blame members of Congress who are unaware of these underlying factors and how they contribute to the culture of lawlessness in the city.

Graves could order his prosecutors to prosecute every single felon in possession of a firearm in federal court starting today. What’s taking him so long?  He should take Jackson Lee’s advice and “take violent criminals off the street,” starting with felons in possession of firearms. 

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