Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to discuss the needs and disparities of the criminal justice system with political leaders, the media, and the law enforcement community. One thing gleaned from almost every discussion, in describing personal experience on both sides of the criminal justice system, is how unfairly the system operates in Washington, D.C.
This is not in reference to the Washington, D.C. of our federal government, but the actual administration of justice for those charged by federal or local authorities in the District of Columbia.
It's a D.C. bureaucratic limbo with a 46-year history of half-measures which, due to a lack of legislation, has metastasized, effecting anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the justice system within the small 68 square mile jurisdiction.
To understand the severity of this problem, you must also understand D.C. history of governance. For "D.C." only became a "city" in 1974, with the passage of their Home Rule Act.
Prior to this, the District of Columbia was a federal one operated by a congressional subcommittee. This is significant, because while an elected mayor and the D.C. Council were immediately established after the Act was passed, D.C. has never established a locally-elected judiciary, prosecutor, or sheriff.
This means that, while the D.C. code established local laws; the D.C. Superior Court is run by the federal government; local cases are prosecuted by the same U.S. attorneys handling federal crimes.
So, in light of the national discussion on possible misconduct relating from the Gen. Michael Flynn case — consider the fact that same lack of oversight has existed in the prosecution of local cases in D.C., for decades.
The results are chilling.
The municipal incarceration rate in the majority African-American city is higher than any state in the nation. That’s because D.C. defendants face the same mandatory-minimum-sentencing guidelines existing for complex federal prosecutions.
These minimums were included in President Trump’s passage of the First Step Act, following his pardon of Alice Marie Johnson.
However, with the closing of the Lorton Correctional Complex in 2001, D.C. lacks not only a locally-controlled justice system but a correctional system as well.
Therefore, anyone sentenced to prison in D.C. Superior Court is sent to the vast federal correctional system, hundreds to thousands of miles from their families — with no ability for early parole.
In recent years, D.C. residents have made it clear they want this problem addressed.
That’s why the D.C. Council enacted resentencing legislation for rehabilitated persons who committed a serious crime. However, the District’s plan follows the same reckless trends as seen in places like California and New York, focusing on lenient charging and bail policies that return offenders to society before a correctional process.
Worse, the solutions offered by D.C. Council only focus on "youthful" offenders in the belief that D.C.’s most at risk criminal offenders will simply "age out of criminal behavior." This is why the D.C. Council is pushing an amendment to the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act to provide prisoners convicted at age 24 or under a chance to have a judge review their sentence after serving 15 years.
In addition, the only expungement available to people with convictions in D.C. are for juvenile or misdemeanor cases. To add insult to injury, D.C. has no clemency process of its own as well. As D.C. has no governor; it has no state pardon process.
Therefore, all D.C. requests for clemency end up at the DOJ’s Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA), competing with federal cases nationwide for presidential pardons.
As OPA is an office of the Department of Justice, the same department employing the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the defendants seeking presidential clemency.
The opportunity for conflicts of interest exist.
Regardless of the fact that presidential pardons are traditionally screened by OPA, these pardons are highly political, and thus rare for someone charged with a [minor] local offense. As a result, only 153 D.C. applicants whose cases were tried in D.C. Superior Court have received clemency since the Eisenhower administration (1953); including only five of the almost 2,000 who received clemency from President Obama.
In contrast, Vermont, a state which has 30,000 fewer people than D.C., has pardoned 208 convicts from 2010 to 2016 alone.
Even as the criminal justice reform discussion surges forward at the White House and Capitol Hill, the city where the debate is being held has less due process and a far higher incarceration rate than any of its fellow states.
These facts should help President Trump establish a refined criminal justice reform platform that helps give a second chance to hundreds of thousands of low-risk offenders demonstrating their value to society. This is in sharp contrast to locally-elected activists who advocate the elimination of bail, or refuse to prosecute rampant crime.
But America must not overcorrect. Ask any criminal justice expert and they’ll tell you, it’s far safer to have someone who has served their sentence to submit to a comprehensive investigation, one provng that they are no longer a danger to the community.
While much of the criminal justice reform has been focused on the topics of prison and bail reform, the safer option has always been “record reform”. Statistics show that releasing criminals pending felony charges is dangerous to society, and recidivism rates are highest for people just released from prison without adjustment and support. Meanwhile there has been almost no advocates for the millions of Americans who, despite having a decades-old criminal record, live and work in society without the ability to get occupational licensure, serve their country and/or participate in their local government.
While President Trump has made strides in criminal justice reform, that legacy should by reestablishment of an apolitical process for post-conviction civil rights restorations. While federal laws of this type are actually on the books, Congress has prohibited funding for it since 1992 to limit those with even a white-collar federal conviction from buying a firearm or running for office. By reinstituting such a process, the Trump administration can give millions of deserving Americans a way to shed the lifelong civil disability of a criminal record.
Many of these people, like General Flynn, may have been pressured into taking a plea.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his two and a half decade career on both sides the criminal justice system. Mannes served in both federal and municipal law enforcement in though the 9/11 attacks, D.C.-area sniper task force, homeland security exercises and natural disasters. Mannes' work in D.C. led to personal encounters with the D.C.'s unlawful personnel actions, unconstitutional gun laws and criminal justice inequalities, which led him to become an advocate for public integrity. Thereafter, Mannes served for nearly nine years as the Director, Office of Investigations for North America's largest medical board, as a Chief Compliance Officer, consultant, expert witness, nonprofit board member and political adviser. Read A. Benjamin Mannes' Reports — More Here.
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