D.C.’s Crime Problem Is a Democracy Problem

Matthew Graves is not shy about promoting his success in prosecuting those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. By his count, Graves, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, has charged more than 1,358 individuals, spread across nearly all 50 states and Washington, D.C., for assaulting police, destroying federal property, and other crimes. He issues a press release for most cases, and he held a rare news conference this past January to tout his achievements.

But Graves’s record of bringing violent criminals to justice on the streets of D.C. has put him on the defensive. Alone among U.S. attorneys nationwide, Graves, appointed by the president and accountable to the U.S. attorney general, is responsible for overseeing both federal and local crime in his city. In 2022, prosecutors under Graves pressed charges on a record-low 33 percent of arrests in the District. Although the rate increased to 44 percent last fiscal year and continues to increase, other cities have achieved much higher rates: Philadelphia had a 96 percent prosecution rate in 2022, while Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, and New York City were both at 86 percent. D.C.’s own rate hovered in the 60s and 70s for years, until it began a sharp slide in 2016.

These figures help account for the fact that, as most major U.S. cities recorded decreases in murders last year, killings in the nation’s capital headed in the other direction: 274 homicides in 2023, the highest number in a quarter century, amounting to a nearly 50 percent increase since 2015. Violent crime, from carjackings to armed robberies, also rose last year. Some types of crime in the District are trending down so far in 2024, but the capital has already transformed from one of the safest urban centers in America not long ago to one in which random violence can take a car or a life even in neighborhoods once considered crime free.

Journalists and experts have offered up various explanations for D.C.’s defiance of national crime trends. The Metropolitan Police Department is down 467 officers from the 3,800 employed in 2020; Police Chief Pamela Smith has said it could take “more than a decade” to reach that number again. But the number of police officers has decreased nationwide. The coronavirus pandemic stalled criminal-court procedures in D.C., but that was also the case across the country. The 13-member D.C. city council, dominated by progressives, tightened regulations on police use of force after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but many local councils across the country passed similar laws. Reacting to public pressure, the D.C. council this month passed, and Mayor Muriel Bowser signed, a public-safety bill that rolls back some policing restrictions and includes tougher penalties for crimes such as illegal gun possession and retail theft.

As a journalist who has covered crime in the District for four decades, I believe that one aspect of the D.C. justice system sets it apart, exacerbating crime and demanding remedy: Voters here cannot elect their own district attorney to prosecute local adult crimes.

The District’s 679,000 residents and the millions of tourists who visit the capital every year could be safer if D.C. chose its own D.A., responsive to the community’s needs and accountable to voters. D.C. residents have no say in who sits atop their criminal-justice system with the awesome discretion to bring charges or not. Giving voters the right to elect their own D.A. would not only move the criminal-justice system closer to the community. It would also reform one of the more undemocratic, unjust sections of the Home Rule Act. The 1973 law, known for granting the District limited self-government, also maintained federal control of D.C.’s criminal-justice system; the president appoints not just the chief prosecutor but also judges to superior and district courts.

“Putting prosecution into the hands of a federal appointee is a complete violation of the founding principles this country was built on,” Karl Racine, who served as D.C.’s first elected attorney general, from 2015 to 2023, told me. (The District’s A.G. has jurisdiction over juvenile crime.) “Power is best exercised locally.”

Allowing the District to elect its own D.A. would not solve D.C.’s crime problem easily or quickly. Bringing criminals to justice is enormously complicated, from arrest to prosecution to adjudication and potential incarceration; this doesn’t fall solely on Graves or any previous U.S. attorney. The change would require Congress to revise the Home Rule charter, and given the politics of the moment and Republican control of the House, it’s a political long shot. In a 2002 referendum, 82 percent of District voters approved of a locally elected D.A. Four years later, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s longtime Democratic delegate to Congress, began introducing legislation to give D.C. its own prosecutor. But her efforts have gone nowhere, regardless of which party controlled Congress or the White House.

Many Republicans in Congress—as well as former President Donald Trump—like to hold up the District as a crime-ridden example of liberal policies gone wrong, and they have repeatedly called for increased federal control to make the city safer. Ironically, what distinguishes the District from every other U.S. city is that its criminal-justice system is already under federal control. If Republicans really want to make D.C. safer, they should consider empowering a local D.A. who could focus exclusively on city crime.

In two interviews, Graves defended his record of prosecuting local crime and pointed to other factors contributing to D.C.’s homicide rate. “The city is lucky to have the career prosecutors it has,” he told me. He questioned whether a locally elected D.A. would be any more aggressive on crime. But he also said he is fundamentally in favor of the District’s right to democratically control its criminal-justice system.

“I personally support statehood,” he said. “Obviously, if D.C. were a state, then part of that deal would be having to assume responsibility for its prosecutions.”

The District’s porous criminal-justice system has long afflicted its Black community in particular; in more than 90 percent of homicides here, both the victims and the suspects are Black. Since the 1980s, I have heard a constant refrain from Washingtonians east of the Anacostia River that “someone arrested Friday night with a gun in their belt is back on the street Saturday morning.”

In the District’s bloodiest days, during the crack epidemic, murders in the city mercilessly rose, peaking in 1991 at 509. From 1986 to 1990, prosecutions for homicide, assault, and robbery increased by 96 percent. Over the next two decades, homicides and violent crime gradually decreased; murders reached a low of 88 in 2012. That year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecution rate in D.C. Superior Court was 70 percent. But the District’s crime rate seemed to correspond more to nationwide trends than to any dramatic changes in the prosecution rate.

The rate of federal prosecution of local crime in the District stood at 65 percent as recently as 2017 but fell precipitously during a period of turbulence in the U.S. Attorney’s Office under President Trump, when multiple people cycled through the lead-prosecutor spot. (“That is your best argument about the danger of being under federal control,” Graves told me.) After a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in 2021 and Graves took office later that year, he temporarily redeployed 15 of the office’s 370 permanent prosecutors to press cases against the violent intruders in D.C. federal court. The prosecution rate for local crime stood at 46 percent in 2021 but plummeted to the nadir of 33 percent in 2022.

“It was a massive resource challenge,” Graves said of the January 6 prosecutions. “It’s definitely a focus of mine, a priority of mine.” But he added: “We all viewed the 33 percent as a problem.”

Graves, 48, an intense, hard-driving lawyer from eastern Pennsylvania, told me that his job, “first and foremost, is keeping the community safe.” He has a track record in the District: He joined the D.C. federal prosecutor’s operation in 2007 and worked on local violent crime before moving up to become the acting chief of the department’s fraud and public-corruption section. He went into private practice in 2016 and returned when President Joe Biden nominated him to run the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in July 2021. He has lived in the District for more than 20 years. “It’s my adopted home,” he said.

Graves attributes D.C.’s rising murder rate in large part to the fact that the number of illegal guns in D.C. “rocketed up” in 2022 and 2023: Police recovered more than 3,100 illegal firearms in each of those years, compared with 2,300 in 2021. “D.C. doesn’t appropriately hold people accountable for illegally possessing firearms,” he told me. According to Graves, D.C. judges detain only about 10 percent of defendants charged with illegal possession of a firearm.

He attributed his office’s low prosecution rates to two main causes: first, pandemic restrictions that dramatically cut back on in-person jury trials, including grand juries, where prosecutors must present evidence to bring indictments. Without grand juries, Graves said, prosecutors could not indict suspects who were “sitting out in the community.” Second, the District’s crime lab lost its accreditation in April 2021 and was out of commission until its partial reinstatement at the end of 2023. Without forensic evidence, prosecutors struggled to trace DNA, drugs, firearm cartridges, and other evidence, Graves explained: “It was a massive mess that had nothing to do with our office.” Police and prosecutors were unable to bring charges for drug crimes until the Drug Enforcement Agency agreed in March 2022 to handle narcotics testing.

Even with these impediments, Graves said his office last year charged 90 percent of “serious violent crime” cases in D.C., including 137 homicides, in part by increasing the number of prosecutors handling violent crime cases in 2022 and 2023.

But accepting Graves’s explanations doesn’t account for at least 18 murder suspects in 2023 who had previously been arrested but were not detained—either because prosecutors had dropped charges or pleaded down sentences (in some cases before Graves’s tenure), or because judges released the defendants. (The 18 murder suspects were tracked by the author of the anonymous DC Crime Facts Substack and confirmed in public records.) “Where the office does not go forward with a firearms case at the time of arrest, it is either because of concerns about whether the stop that led to the arrest was constitutional or because there is insufficient evidence connecting the person arrested to the firearm,” Graves told me in an email.

Last month, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, a research and advocacy nonprofit, released a report showing that in 2021 and 2022, homicide victims and suspects both had, on average, more than six prior criminal cases, and that most of those cases had been dismissed. Police and nonprofit groups working to tamp down violence described “a feeling of impunity among many people on the streets that may be encouraging criminal behavior.” Police “also complained of some cases not being charged or when they are, the defendant being allowed to go home to await court proceedings,” according to the report, which cited interviews with more than 70 Metropolitan Police Department employees.

“Swift and reliable punishment is the most effective deterrent,” Vanessa Batters-Thompson, the executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for increased local governance, told me.

In January, the Justice Department announced that it would “surge” more federal prosecutors and investigators to “target the individuals and organizations that are driving violent crime in the nation’s capital,” in the words of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. Graves welcomed the move, which he said has added about 10 prosecutors so far and will create a special unit to analyze crime data that could provide investigators with leads. Similar “surges” have been deployed in Memphis and Houston.

“But [D.C. has] no control over what that surge is,” Batters-Thompson said—how large or long-lasting it is. Even if federal crime fighters make a dent in the District’s violence and homicide rates, the effort would amount to a temporary fix.

Electing a D.A. for D.C. would not only take Congress reforming the Home Rule Act. There’s also the considerable expense of creating a district attorney’s office and absorbing the cost now borne by the federal government. (It’s an imperfect comparison, but the D.C. Office of the Attorney General’s operating budget for fiscal year 2024 is approximately $154 million.) Republicans in control of the House are more intent on repealing the Home Rule Act than granting District residents more autonomy.

But if Republicans want D.C. to tackle its crime problem, why shouldn’t its residents—like those of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Denver, Boston, Seattle, and elsewhere—be able to elect a district attorney dedicated to that effort? Crime is often intimate and neighborhood-based, especially in a relatively small city such as the District. Effective prosecution requires connection and trust with the community, both to send a message about the consequences of bad behavior and to provide victims and their families with some solace and closure. Those relationships are much more difficult to forge with a federally appointed prosecutor whose jurisdiction is split between federal and local matters, and who is not accountable to the people he or she serves.

Racine, the former D.C. attorney general, was regularly required to testify in oversight hearings before the city council. Graves doesn’t have to show up for hearings before the District’s elected council, though he couldn’t help but note to me that progressive council members have in the past accused D.C.’s criminal-justice system of being too punitive.

Graves told me that his office has a special community-engagement unit, that he attends community meetings multiple times a month, and that his office is “latched up at every level” with the police, especially with the chief, with whom Graves said he emails or talks weekly.

“Given our unique role,” he said, “we have to make ourselves accountable to the community.”

Sounds like the perfect platform to run on for D.C.’s first elected district attorney.

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