Urban Wire Harsher Penalties Won’t Stop Gun Violence in DC
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Mayor Muriel Bowser, center, along with United States Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu, right, and D.C Police Chief Peter Newsham, speaks during a press conference.

Last month, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced plans to partner with federal prosecutors to shift prosecution for certain “felon-in-possession” firearm offenses out of the local DC court system and into the federal justice system.

Supporters believe moving these cases into the federal system, where sentences are typically more severe, will help suppress the recent surge of homicides in DC. Critics argue that this approach will provide little benefit to public safety while exacerbating mass incarceration.

DC needs viable and effective strategies to address gun violence and build public safety. And though we don’t know the specific details of the mayor’s proposal, what we do know raises critical policy concerns. This decision could carry collateral consequences that undermine public safety in DC in the long term.

The DC court system and gun cases

With no city court, circuit court, or justice court, DC’s court system is one of a kind. Most cases involving violations of DC law are filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, though if a person is charged with a federal crime, the case will be prosecuted in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

Both federal and DC laws prohibit people with certain previous offenses from possessing firearms. Currently, these felon-in-possession cases are generally processed within superior court, where people are more likely to receive sentences closer to the mandatory minimum.

In 2018, of the reported 350 felon-in-possession cases, only one-quarter were charged as federal crimes rather than DC code violations. In federal courts, drug-related charges or a prior violent felony conviction can trigger long mandatory minimum sentences.

The policy implications of change

Although addressing gun violence is a pressing priority for the city, handing prosecution for certain gun possession crimes over to the federal system poses a number of policy concerns.

  • Little evidence suggests that sweeping gun possession cases into the federal system actually addresses the problem of gun violence. DC code already prescribes tough mandatory minimum sentences for many gun possession offenses, even though no evidence shows this punitive, deterrence-based approach actually reduces gun violence. Transferring these cases to federal court would mean that people facing convictions would be subject to federal mandatory minimums that are even more severe but equally lacking in evidence and research. These long sentences also have major long-term social and economic consequences.
  • People from DC who are processed in federal court don’t have access to key policy options available through the DC court system. Last year, the DC Council unanimously voted to expand the Youth Rehabilitation Act, which provides people with a pathway to clear offenses committed before age 25 from their records, removing what can be a significant barrier to housing and employment later in life. This second chance is only available to people whose cases are processed in DC courts, so shifting gun possession cases to federal court would render those young adults ineligible.
  • Bringing these cases under federal jurisdiction would pull DC justice policy decisions further out of the hands of councilmembers and the voters who elect them. The 1997 National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act shifted control of DC’s prison population and parole authority to the federal government. Handing over entire categories of cases would further cede local authority, meaning that many changes the council may want to make to gun possession penalties—particularly any retroactive sentencing provisions—would be out of reach.

Evidence-based strategies to address violence

More prosecutions with longer sentences don’t curb crime. Significantly longer sentences increase the lasting negative consequences of incarceration: increased familial separation and burden, higher recidivism risk (PDF), increased residential instability, and greater concentration of poverty through limited postincarceration employment. On a community level, these factors contribute to more destabilized neighborhoods and, possibly, more violence.

Luckily, DC policymakers can leverage several evidence-based policy tools and strategies to address spikes in homicide.

For starters, to adequately respond to gun violence, we need to better understand the perspectives and lives of those who carry guns in DC. Our work in Chicago has shown that people who carry guns illegally do so for safety and are not deterred by potential criminal consequences.

It stands to reason that we should focus on making people who carry guns feel safer and making communities where gun violence happens more stable. Communities nationwide are developing community-based public safety strategies in which local organizations and grassroots leaders partner to keep neighborhoods safe and strong.

We can reduce gun violence and gun carrying without harsher penalties and expensive incarceration. Research on violence interrupters programs across the country have shown promising results. In fact, in 2015, DC passed the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, which provided funding for similar programs, and implementation is currently underway.

Community members are best situated to identify the best solutions for them, so any approach to gun violence should put more—not less—decisionmaking power in local hands.

There is no one perfect solution for addressing gun violence, but listening to and investing in communities—rather than passing the buck to the federal court system—may yield policy insights crucial to a safer and stronger DC. 

Research Areas Greater DC Crime, justice, and safety Neighborhoods, cities, and metros