DC Officials Endure Congressional Criticism for Rising Crime Rate and Lax Prosecutions
WASHINGTON — A congressional panel cast doubt on the District of Columbia’s ability to control its own problems Thursday as violent crime surges in the nation’s capital while it drops in most other U.S. cities.
The victims have included members of Congress and their staff.
“The crime we are witnessing only a few blocks from this building is unprecedented,” said Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Mo., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance.
Many of the accusations of mismanagement fell on the D.C. Council and prosecutors, who several lawmakers said are “soft on crime.”
Homicides — like overall crime — are up about 28% in Washington compared with last year, according to Metropolitan Police Department figures. Motor vehicle thefts are 107% higher.
Riggs put some of the blame on U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves, a Biden administration appointee. Crime in Washington has increased since Graves was appointed in 2021.
Riggs cited statistics showing Graves and his associates decline to prosecute 67% of the persons police arrest and charge with crimes. Before Graves was appointed, the U.S. attorney’s office declined to prosecute 35% of the cases presented to prosecutors, Riggs said.
The 35% rate is consistent with many other U.S. cities.
Crime rose nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic but has declined steadily in places like New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boston, Massachusetts, and Houston, Texas, since it subsided, according to the Major Cities [Police] Chiefs Association.
Graves disputes the kinds of figures Riggs mentioned. His office says they prosecute 90% of accused violent criminals as they target the worst crimes.
Other blame from lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing fell on the D.C. Council for recent legislative proposals that would have reduced the sentences for some crimes but held police more harshly accountable for lapses in their performance.
Earlier this year, the D.C. Council approved a bill that would have overhauled local criminal laws for the first time in a century. It would have eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences and reduced mandatory maximum penalties.
In one example, the maximum sentence for armed carjackings would drop from 40 to 24 years. Other provisions would have expanded rights to jury trials for misdemeanor offenses, which critics said would force prosecutors to drop more charges as their caseload became overburdened.
In March, Congress voted to overrule the local legislation. President Joe Biden said he agreed with Congress.
The same objections lawmakers raised in March were mentioned again Thursday amid denunciations of local officials.
“When you go soft on crime, you get more crime,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
Greg Pemberton, a Metropolitan Police Department detective and chairman of the D.C. Police Union, joined criticisms of the D.C. Council when he said, “We know for certain their efforts have been an abject failure.”
The D.C. police force of just over 3,000 officers is down by roughly 600 from its authorized level, Pemberton said. About 40% of them resigned in frustration over the policies and practices they confronted on their jobs, he said.
Charles Stimson, deputy director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, said problems at the D.C. crime lab were an example of what he described as a dysfunctional city administration.
The crime lab, also known as the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences, lost its accreditation from the the American National Standards Institute Accreditation Board in 2021 after an audit showed lax investigative procedures. Its new leaders applied to regain accreditation last month after they say they revamped the way it did its investigations.
The loss of accreditation meant the DNA, fingerprint and ballistics analyses performed by its scientists are considered unreliable evidence during criminal prosecutions. Some convictions based on evidence from the crime lab were overturned after the audit.
“Congress should federalize the lab,” Stimson said.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton, D.C.’s Democratic delegate to Congress, warned against too much congressional intervention in local affairs. She said it could violate the right of residents to govern themselves.
If Washington residents are dissatisfied with D.C. Council members, “They can vote the members out of office,” Holmes Norton said. “That is called democracy.”