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Advocates Say How Gun Crimes Are Charged In Washington D.C. Is A Civil Rights Issue

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A struggle is underway over how prosecutors charge gun crimes in Washington, D.C. The Justice Department says it needs flexibility to bring some cases in federal court, where penalties are higher. But civil rights groups say the policy discriminates against Black residents. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Two years ago in the Trump administration, the U.S. attorney in D.C. announced she would prosecute certain gun possession cases in federal court rather than the local court system. That policy drew immediate criticism from people like Harvard Law professor Andrew Crespo.

ANDREW CRESPO: This policy is straight out of the mass incarceration playbook.

C JOHNSON: Crespo directs the Institute to End Mass Incarceration.

CRESPO: The people impacted by this policy, who are overwhelmingly poor and overwhelmingly Black, face dramatically more time in prison as a result.

C JOHNSON: The policy applies to people with a prior criminal record who are arrested for having a gun, a charge known as felon in possession. D.C.'s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Karl Racine, joined the case on the side of people fighting the U.S. Justice Department.

KARL RACINE: No one has produced any data nor evidence that suggests that the manner in which the federal prosecutor is bypassing the local court is making residents of the District of Columbia safer.

C JOHNSON: The Vera Institute, a nonprofit criminal justice think tank, studied the gun crimes policy in D.C. Researcher Akhi Johnson explains what he found.

AKHI JOHNSON: Even though D.C. is less than 50% Black, Black people account for 97% of the people charged with felony possession cases in D.C.

C JOHNSON: Johnson says the policy separates people from their communities, deprives them of job opportunities and perpetuates cycles of violence in the city. Complicating the issue is that the problem with gun violence in the district is stark. A spokeswoman for acting D.C. police chief Robert Contee says he backs the DOJ approach. Here he is before the city council last month.

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ROBERT CONTEE: Indeed, gun violence in 2020 reached a 12-year high. Of the city's 198 homicides, 172 died from gun violence.

C JOHNSON: Contee says he wants to be more strategic about getting guns out of the wrong hands. The U.S. attorney's office has already changed some aspects of the Trump gun charging policy. Under the Biden administration, prosecutors now bring the majority of gun possession cases in local court in line with how the office operated during the Obama years. Acting U.S. attorney Channing Phillips told a judge recently he's not ready to scrap the policy altogether, but that's not enough for Harvard's Andrew Crespo.

CRESPO: My hope, frankly, is that this is a mistake, that the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is because there's some crossed wires while the new leadership is coming into the Department of Justice.

C JOHNSON: Crespo says he took note of comments about gun violence last week from new Attorney General Merrick Garland.

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MERRICK GARLAND: We will empower our communities to combat and prevent gun violence. We all recognize that although law enforcement plays an important role, gun violence is not a problem that law enforcement alone can solve.

C JOHNSON: Garland is pledging $1 billion in grants for violence interrupters, street outreach and other intervention services. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine says he's asked for a meeting with the new top federal prosecutor here in the coming weeks to discuss the charging policy. Both sides are due back in court next month.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TIDES' "SUBTLE DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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