Eighty-seven former federal prosecutors are pushing the Biden Justice Department to end a Trump-era “felon-in-possession” initiative that lets prosecutors shift gun cases out of D.C.’s Superior Court and into federal District Court, where sentences can be twice as long.
In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips, the lawyers wrote, “Excessive sentences exacerbate the underlying drivers of violence, producing shame, isolation, stunted economic opportunity, and exposure to further violence.”
They added that the policy also increases racial inequity. When the initiative first began, it targeted specific police districts with higher levels of homicide and illegal weapons, neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast D.C. with more black residents. “The racial inequities created by the FIP Initiative are particularly egregious, given that the policy initially — and secretly — targeted only the Blackest and most impoverished communities in the District,” the former prosecutors wrote.
Now even though the targeting of specific neighborhoods has ended, the racial disparity in prosecutions is still stark. Ninety-seven percent of people charged with felony possession in the District are black, while black people make up less than half the population of D.C., according to the Vera Justice Institute, a nonprofit criminal justice think tank. Jami Hodge and Akhi Johnson, former prosecutors now with the institute, wrote an op-ed published in the Washington Post supporting ending the initiative. “If D.C. were a state, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the country — the same country that incarcerates more people than anywhere in the world,” Hodge and Johnson wrote.
They also point out the Biden has been vocal about racial equity and ending mass incarceration, but, they say, “The FIP initiative typifies the problem Biden has vowed to tackle.”
Currently in D.C., John Reed, a 63-year-old black grandfather who has no history of violent crime, is facing federal prosecution for possession of a stolen handgun. DOJ lawyers argued in court on Wednesday to continue prosecuting Reed federally, the Post reported.
“The civil rights groups are against it, the locally elected officials are against it, and scores of former federal prosecutors are against it,” wrote Harvard Law Professor Andrew Crespo, who is director of the Institute to End Mass Incarceration, on Twitter. “The Biden administration could easily and immediately end it. Instead, they came to court today to defend it.”