Statement from Councilmember Robert White on
Mayor Bowser's Decision to Prosecute
District Residents Under Federal Law in the U.S. District Court
Today, Mayor Muriel Bowser and U.S. Attorney Liu announced a partnership between the District of Columbia and the U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute District residents under federal law in the U.S. District Court. I am disappointed and disturbed by the Mayor’s announced rollback of local control over our criminal justice system.
By prosecuting increasing numbers of District residents under federal law and in federal court, not only do we move backward in our ongoing fight for statehood and local control, but we undercut due process as well. Defendants in the U.S. District Court will be placed in a system with fewer than ten full-time attorneys serving as public defenders, rather than benefiting from the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, which has led the nation in advocacy and legal representation with over two hundred full-time employees.
I have supported and continue to support evidence-based practices to combat violent crime in the District – including the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the Office of the Attorney General’s Cure the Streets Initiative. These programs have begun to show success in preventing violent crime and we must expand them and fund them adequately.
However, I cannot support any proposal that effectively eliminates local control over the criminal laws that apply to hundreds of our residents. If the administration would like to propose harsher criminal sentencing and reduced access to local programs for sealing and expungement, then the proper forum for that debate is before the elected legislative representatives of our residents, not in closed door discussions with federal prosecutors that have no accountability to our residents.
I understand that the administration is concerned that the U.S. Attorney’s Office sometimes “no-papers,” or refuses to prosecute people who are arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department. Rather than seeking an undemocratic change in court venue, we should begin a more robust conversation about the investigatory errors, constitutional violations, lack of evidence, or lack of resources that reduce prosecution in our current system.
Furthermore, by pushing our residents deeper into the federal system, we will simply be intimidating more defendants into accepting false or unfair plea bargains. The result of these changes will not be a safer or stronger city, but a more repressive criminal system that continues to target and over-incarcerate communities of color. This move will have a destructive impact on people and communities of color, and we cannot ignore this reality.
In a 2017 survey, 71% of Americans, including a majority of Americans who voted for Donald Trump, support reducing the prison population. A Democratic jurisdiction proposing a criminal prosecution strategy that moves us in the opposite direction and gives permission to Congress to impede home rule is an affront to social justice and basic democratic principles.