Black prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, this summer told their leaders they opposed a gun control law enforcement approach that unequally fixated on and punished more harshly people in the city’s Black neighborhoods.
The disclosure of the career prosecutors’ recommendation, to abandon cracking down on certain Washington, DC, neighborhoods in federal court, is tucked into court filings from July about a controversial approach to gun prosecutions in the city.
This newly disclosed split in the DC US Attorney’s office adds to a year of political battles inside one of the most closely watched Justice Department bureaus during the Trump administration, and at a time when discussions over policing have become a focus of the presidential race.
Previously, the office faced divides between career attorneys and leadership over the softening of cases against President Donald Trump’s former advisers Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.
In the latest iteration, the Justice Department described a “Working Group” of Black assistant US attorneys in the DC prosecutors’ office who responded to a policy to prosecute felons in possession of firearms in federal court instead of local court as part of the citywide crackdown. The change in approach results in harsher sentences, defense lawyers have argued.
The Washington Post first reported the Justice Department’s admissions.
The program was initially planned for a crackdown citywide, the Justice Department wrote. But instead, it targeted the city’s “poor, struggling neighborhoods” with higher violent crime rates – neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and poor, the Justice Department also told the court.
The working group “asked the current Acting U.S. Attorney [Michael Sherwin] to end or amend the felon-in-possession initiative, and he is considering this request,” a Justice Department court filing said.
Sherwin told the Post he ended the program’s geographic focus last week. He and Justice Department spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
The District of Columbia has a unique setup of having federal prosecutors bring many of its local criminal cases. Gun crimes historically were brought in local court.
But in early 2019, law enforcement officials in the city decided more gun crimes should be prosecuted in federal court, as a way to combat homicides, and the US Attorney and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the citywide plan, which even then was controversial, at a press conference.
“Thus, a defendant on one side of North Capitol Street is subjected to federal prosecution and a potential prison sentence that is on average more than twice as long as he would face had he been arrested for identical conduct on the other side of the street,” defense attorneys have argued in federal court against the policy.
Implementing the program citywide “was not, however, feasible,” John Crabb Jr., a leader in the US Attorney’s Office wrote in a sworn affidavit in July. “Accordingly, it was ultimately determined that the greatest impact would result from focusing on the MPD districts that had the highest instances of violent crime.”
Bowser, the DC mayor who ushered in the program alongside the federal prosecutors, distanced herself from the Justice Department on Friday.
“This is yet another example just this week of why DC needs local control of the judicial system. The whiplash — from leadership changes in the top spot in the US Attorney’s Office to a lack of veracity and focus in their administration of justice — can understandably undermine residents’ confidence in the Office. It is time residents can hold its prosecutors accountable,” Bowser’s spokesperson LaToya Foster said in a statement.
Defense attorneys opposed to the policy in court have accused the DC US Attorney’s office of lying and seized on the split in the office to argue how problematic the law enforcement policy has become. They are now seeking evidence about the program from the US Attorney’s Office.
“If [previous US Attorney Jessie] Liu had told the public at the outset that her goal was to send defendants (from the Blackest parts of the city) to prison for dramatically longer sentences, she would have had to explain why her office was working directly against the D.C. Council’s express criminal justice strategy, which has sought to reduce prison sentences and racial disparities in the District. And she would have had to offer that explanation in a political moment when the public’s opposition to exceedingly punitive, racially disparate prosecutorial policies is at its zenith,” defense lawyers who are challenging criminal gun charges, citing the policy’s racial disparities, wrote.
DC’s state-level Attorney General Karl Racine said in a statement his office has always opposed the policy, because of its “disparate impact on Black residents in the District, and called the admissions of the federal prosecutors’ office “troubling.”
“Our office was not consulted on this policy before it was rolled out and did not learn about its discriminatory application until the USAO’s public court filing last month. OAG remains opposed to this policy and reiterated our position to the court last week,” Racine said.