Reminder: Meeting on Public Safety Issues (From Odentex)


Ed. Note: I originally published this post yesterday at 5pm but due to its importance I didn’t want it to get buried since the meeting is tonight.

Once again, there will be a public meeting on Public Safety Issues this Thursday, Feb. 5, at 7PM at 801 Shepherd NW (the ROC building).

First, credit where credit is due. Since the last neighborhood meeting we had in November, the council has passed the “Inoperable Pistol Amendment Act of 2008” which means that the prosecutors no longer have to prove that a firearm is in working condition to move forward on a gun possession case. This is a big deal not only because it makes it easier for the prosecutors to make a possession case, but also test-firing guns by MPD was a waste of money AND sometimes law enforcement had to choose trying to make a possession case versus trying to get forensic evidence of a more serious nature from a confiscated firearm. This is a good step forward. CM Mendelson should be congratulated for finally getting this done.

However, we still have a major gulf of understanding about what is to be done about repeat gun possession offenses. The “Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill of 2008” is still pending. For those that didn’t follow this debate back in November, that Bill can be found at:

This bill includes a lot of different changes to the DC code, but the one change that is most important in this debate is the proposal to add a mandatory minimum punishment for repeat offenders who possess weapons (see page 28-29). The bill has languished for some time, and according to the DC council website there is no movement on it. Further, while this legislation covers offenses under 22-4503 (unlawful possession of a firearm), it leaves open a HUGE loophole for repeat offenders to be alternatively charged under 22-4504 (carrying concealed weapons) which has no mandatory punishment for repeat offenders. This needs to be discussed with the council members. Continues after the jump.

We must know where they stand and why.

At the last meeting Chief Lanier spent time and effort to get the community to contact superior court judges, the premise being that the judges were not sentencing offenders appropriately in all cases. This misses the point. The judges follow the law and in DC the law is promulgated by the city council. To blame the judges, even if they were low-balling sentences (which they aren’t), is pointless. Further, many of you may not realize this but there is a sentencing guideline system in the District of Columbia. That means that the judges consult a grid with a sentencing range to determine how a defendant should be sentenced. Listening to Lanier last November a resident could easily have believed that the Superior Court judges simply willy-nilly pick a low sentence because, well, just because. That’s not true at all. In DC the judges sentence within the Sentencing Guidelines over 90% of the time even though the sentencing guidelines are completely voluntary. About 3-4% of the time they go higher, and only 5-6% of the time do they go lower. Those are the facts:

Well, you say, who is on this Sentencing Commission? Well, a lot of judges, lawyers, and other officials including Phil Mendelson. So it isn’t as if CM Mendelson doesn’t understand how judges sentence in the District. He must have had laryngitis at the last meeting when Chief Lanier was excoriating the judges and encouraging residents to get torches and pitchforks ready to descend on every criminal sentencing hearing.

The solution to the problem that the Chief pointed out is not an ultimately ineffective letter writing campaign to appointees who are merely implementing the law, it is for council to establish minimum sentences for repeat offenders that will be implemented across the board regardless of whether a citizen is sitting in superior court watching a sentencing or not, and regardless of whether the DC Sentencing Commission has appropriately drafted applicable guidelines. This includes covering 22-4504 to dissuade the US Atty from charging everyone under that provision to avoid the mandatory penalties contained in the Omnibus bill. It’s simple, easily done, and makes sense to everyone except gun-carrying recidivists and, perhaps, a few council members.

This city spent a lot of time and effort to fight the Heller Supreme Court case and keep gun ownership as restrictive as possible in the District. This was done with the highest hopes about keeping the city safe from gun violence. But these laws do not mean a thing when the punishment for repeatedly carrying a loaded weapon can be time served. Such a situation renders any talk about removing guns from this city meaningless.

Finally, a couple of things to keep in mind:

1) Let’s try to keep some focus.

The last meeting was too short, but even so do we really need another rundown about current MPD operations? If you have thugs in your alley, or zombies in your attic, PLEASE bring this up with MPD on your own time. I am not saying I am unsympathetic to specific issues having to do with your block, but to a certain extent this is re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to focus on real LEGAL reform and keep the heat on the council. Everyone agrees the system isn’t working.

2) Don’t let MPD or council blame the judges.

It just deflects the blame for the status quo and at the same time blames lazy residents of the District for not going to every criminal sentencing to make sure it is done right. DO NOT LET THEM GET AWAY WITH THIS. The judges only follow the law (see above).


This is the most important thing. Council members may not agree with some of us that the current state of the law is inadequate. That’s fine, just make them say it. CM’s are either FOR or AGAINST the pending Omnibus Bill as described above. CM’s are either FOR or AGAINST mandatory minimum punishments for repeat gun offenders.

Don’t let them say “we need to examine this” — there have been mandatory minimums on the books in DC for years. The Omnibus Bill has been pending for over a year. They know where they stand on these

21 Comment

  • Thanks for this good write up, though I have no way of verifying these points of course. Regarding #1, it seems almost all community meetings are hijacked by someone who wants to spout about their problem for 20 minutes, I doubt this one will be any different. Kudos to you for hoping for it, but…

    Regarding #2, good point. Regarding #3, I have little hope for the current council, especially Mendelson. He loves to discuss the minutiae of why the constitution prevents us from holding offenders, but cannot explain why no such barrier exists in VA or MD. In short, I’d head straight for the nuclear option of seeking and supporting a candidate to replace him. When new candidates surface, appraise them of this glaring hole in the Mendelson machine. At the worst it may cause Mendelson to take this issue more seriously.

    Also, one other point, I think we’ve discussed how many laws we have that are not enforced? So, open dope smoking and shouting death threats are indeed against the law, but entirely common. How do we address these unenforced laws? I am not for a police state sort of existence, but I think a lot of our nuisance crimes could be dealt with by using existing laws.

    On a related note, we don’t seem to have any reliable source of information on who gets arrested and when they are released and why. Not saying that names should be named, but how do we know we’re not simply imagining problems? How do we know that the courts may be neglecting to try criminals in many cases. We have crime stats on crimes committed, but nothing on arrests and releases. Or do we?

    Also, I’d like to again draw attention to this article, which I think is quite good:

  • One more thing, thanks to PoP and Odentex for leading on this.

  • Agree on all points. Thanks very much for this, Odentex! You are a good neighbor to us all.

  • Many thanks to Odentex for the very cogent rundown above. There’s one thing I don’t understand, though: why the advocacy for mandatory minimum jailtime, when changing the sentencing guidelines would accomplish the same results while still giving judges discretion for truly exceptional cases?

    Odentex makes the point that judges already do a very reasonable job of following the existing sentencing guidelines. Why take away their discretion?

    “Mandatory minimums” for drug offenses have a well-earned reputation for causing great injustices, and cause huge ethical dilemmas for judges: if they feel a “mandatory minimum” sentence is grossly inappropriate in a particular case (e.g. due to mitigating circumstances) , their only recourse is to resign from the bench in protest.

    Say you’ve got a lawfully registered shotgun for home self-defense; you put it in your trunk when moving to a new apartment. Oops, you forget it’s there and drive to Safeway (or whatever). Presto: you’ve earned a mandatory minimum sentence. I’m not liking this.

    So, what’s the argument for using the “nuclear option” of mandatory minimums, rather than simply fixing the sentencing guidelines?

  • Too bad it’s not t-shirt weather, we should all wear our PoP t-shirts! A force to be reckoned with!

  • CB: You bring up some very good points.

    First and foremost, I want to be clear, the pending Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill proposes a mandatory minimum sentence for a defendant who has a prior felony conviction (hence my repeated use of the term “repeat offender”) and calls for a mandatory one year sentence. Compare this to the New York law which calls for a mandatory 3 1/2 years for a first offense possession of a loaded weapon (ask Plaxico Burress about this law). Nobody, NOBODY is going to get thrown in jail for a year in DC because they forgot their shotgun in the trunk. The problem in DC is that there is no deterrence for the repeat offender – no deterrence until they end up dead or get picked up for something that can’t be ignored like murder.

    Second, mandatories are a blunt instrument, but in some cases they make sense. For instance, I personally think the NY law is inflexible and a defendant like Plaxico who has no felony history really shouldn’t face mandatory prison time for one (admittedly huge and dumb) mistake. I do not have the same compunction about assigning a mandatory year in prison to a convicted felon who decides to carry a weapon on the streets of DC – repeatedly. The DC Guidelines should be amended, but as they are voluntary, the pending bill should be enacted to assure parity and avoid disparity certain cases. It is not as if there are not currently mandatory minimums in the DC code, there are, but if the problem truly is that the sentences for repeatedly carrying weapons in DC are as low as the MPD has suggested and the limited data from the Sentencing Commission seems to confirm, the easiest and most direct way to the goal of removing weapons from the streets is through mandatory minimums for this specific class of offenders.

    Does anyone really want to argue that people who illegally carry weapons currently worry about the repercussions in DC? We have at least one example of someone unwilling to follow the law regularly posting to this blog.

    There are other reasons that attempting to amend the sentencing guidelines to effect a reasonable punishment for repeat offenders is problematic. One reason is the current structure of the guidelines doesn’t allow for isolating specific repeat gun offenses and another is the fact that the 20 members of the Commission are appointed and, unlike the council, unlikely to respond as quickly, positively, and directly as elected officials. Put simply, the mandatory provision which is already pending in this bill is the quickest route to a better and more reasonable sentencing policy for these specific offenses.

    Finally your point about mandatories for drugs is a completely unrelated issue to mandatories for crimes like a felon repeatedly carrying a weapon in my opinion. DC currently has several mandatories for other serious and violent felonies and to extend these provisions to deter the repeated violation of DC’s gun laws has a merit that outweighs it’s use elsewhere. Not all crimes are punished the same, nor should they be, and the blanket use of mandatory penalties would be as foolish as the blanket use of capital punishment. However, in some specific cases where public policy and the need to avoid disparity are patently obvious, mandatories can be effective tools.

    Finally, regarding drugs, the federal crack cocaine mandatory problematic not because it hasn’t been effective in reducing crack offenses since it’s implementation in the 1990’s, it’s arguably been quite effective there, that particular law fails (in my opinion) on public policy reasons because it is obviously unfair and causes massive disparities between crack defendants and powder cocaine defendants who receive shorter sentences for the same amount of drugs. As I said, the problems here are unrelated to the issue of punishing repeat gun offenders who I suggest should all be treated the same.

    I understand it is popular in progressive political circles to throw the baby out with the bath water with regard to mandatory minimums without really understanding the operation of such laws in the various cases they are used. Just because mandatories have been arguably overused and applied unfairly by congress for some drug offenses doesn’t mean that such regimes are not effective ways to deal the gun violence that still plagues this city.

    On a final note, in the article that Pennywise mentions, the Washingtonian reporter mentions the fact that defendants caught in Virginia on federal gun cases know full well what they face in the federal system. Don’t for a second believe that the just because many law abiding and unarmed citizens are unaware of the laws regarding gun possession that means those who carry guns are just as ignorant. They know full well that carrying a weapon is DC is no more serious than jaywalking.

    I suggest we give them something else to consider.

  • Odentex (or anyone), is there any way to figure out how many arrests are made and subsequent releases that occur do to an unwillingness to prosecute, based on lack of evidence or some such? Or, are our evidentiary standards different than other places?

    Lastly, anything afoot in the juvenile justice arena? There’s regular news about kids on probation killing and such.

  • …”says Hector Gomez, executive director of the Tivoli North Business Association”


  • Pennywise:

    Our evidentiary standards for possession of a firearm WERE different from every jurisdiction in the United States until the council passed the “operability bill” which negates the court-imposed requirement from the 1970’s that the prosecutor prove up that the gun the defendant possessed was operable. So now, at least with regard to the operability element, DC is in line with everyone else. I do not know enough about the process and practice in criminal court in DC to give an opinion about how many cases get pitched for what are commonly referred to as “technicalities”. My experience elsewhere tells me that it’s statistically insignificant. You only ever hear about the cases that are extraordinary and you rarely every hear about the cases where the police screw up the search, violate Miranda or otherwise make a mess of the investigation. In my experience the cases that get dismissed are dismissed because they are weak and should never have been brought in the first place. I have no reason to suspect DC is any different from the big city criminal justice systems I am more intimately familiar with in this regard. Cops always believe every collar is righteous, it’s their job after all, but they are wrong sometimes.

    Regarding DC numbers, there is yearly arrest data and sentencing data so you can subtract one from the other and get general numbers, but not specific to each offense (other than whether it is a felony or not). I think the arrests last year for felonies were something along the line of 5500+/- (down a few thousand from a few years ago), and the total number of *sentences* for felonies were about 2600 or so for the same year (I believe those are ’07 numbers – but don’t hold me to it, this is from memory).

    However, this is actually very misleading since cases from the year before might be in the 2600 cases resolved with a sentence during the current year, some people are acquitted or plea to a misdemeanor, some cases are dismissed after the defense presents information to the prosecutor, and there may be cases still pending from the 5000 that either are going to trial or otherwise still in limbo. In anotherwards, you can get a general sense of the magnitude of how many cases don’t make it to *sentencing*, but that doesn’t really tell you too terribly much. As I said, contrary to public belief, my experience tells me there are very few cases that get dismissed that shouldn’t. Further, MPD or the US Atty not being able to make cases seems to be less of a concern to local law enforcement than their general impression that there is a revolving door for sentencing some offenses including weapons possession.

    Regarding juveniles, ANC Joe Martin had suggested before that he would like to see a public forum on juvenile issues in the future. I’m not sure the status on planning that meeting, if Joe is lurking perhaps he could speak to that. I know there is interest. I am completely unfamiliar with the juvenile system in the district and wouldn’t know where to begin to address the issues.

    Personally, I plan to bulldog down this particular issue with regard to the pending legislation and it’s effect on weapons offenses in the District. We have to start somewhere. To me one of the more obvious fixes for the city is easily taken care of with regard to carrying weapons illegally. While you are right to suggest there seems to be an accepted culture of openly breaking the law in DC I think there is hardly any more dangerous or deadly breach of the law (nor more idiotic behavior) than carrying around firearms. The gun culture in DC must be broken and the time served sentences the police lament, imposed over and over and over again until the defendant ends up dead or in prison for a much worse offense are not effective. Time for a change.

  • No argument here, thanks for the info. I guess my one other point is that I feel these meetings are simple propaganda. The idea that our councilmembers and city employees are unaware of the many, many problems in our city is wrong. They know full well and have essentially sold many of us out as it doesn’t seem to threaten their positions at all. Councilmembers are able to maintain enough votes to get elected, and many city employees often exist behind such a wall of bureaucracy and mismanagement that they have no actual reason to do their jobs, and they certainly don’t care about making the city a better place. So, every so often we get one of these meetings where we get to see the finest of public relations training, and (in the case of city employees) loyalty to the administration. The council and city get to pretend to be taking action for a while, until the next meeting is called. These people who don’t see the problems on many of our streets is blind, deaf, and dumb, or just never goes to those streets as they have no reason to. And thus, they hold no power there, the thugs and trash do instead.

    Anyways, sorry for my inherent cynicism, but again I think the best strategy is a very aggressive “vote the bums out” effort. Let’s start with Mendelson, as anyone who heads the crime/justice committee in this town should be tarred, feathered, and run out.

  • Mendelson does seem to get some bad press. He also didn’t do much to impress me by standing there silently at the November meeting when the Chief of Police was suggesting the real problem is softie judges when he ought to know better. It’s also easy to question the motivation of an at-large council member who lives way up west far, far away from the most serious problems of the city.

    Fair enough, but we did all decide to live here in Ward 4, so if you are going to bitch about how the city does or doesn’t do things I think the least one can do is try and engage the council even if it is frustrating sometimes that they never seem to act. You can’t properly build a case against the council unless you actually propose a solution and they refuse to follow through with it or a reasonable compromise.

    Also, as I said in the original message PoP posted, we should give him (and the rest of council) credit for fixing the “operability” problem. He said he would do it in November and he did take care of it in December, so let’s not forget about that. It’s something.

    Good work Phil.

    Now on to the harder questions…

  • Well I see your point Odentex, but I don’t agree. By engaging them you take part in the fraudulent spin machine and help propagate the lie. As I’ve said before, I would hope to engage in a series of high dollar lawsuits that target specific failings from government, and then use the awarded funds to set up community foundations to provide the services that DC gov’t won’t.

    Think of the Rosenbaum murder case: the family was awarded tens of millions but they said they wouldn’t collect so long as the city improved emergency services. The city pretended to do so, escaped the penalties, but didn’t (by many accounts) actually improve services. So, what if the Rosenbaum family had collected their award and used it for providing health care and emergency services? Not on a city wide scale of course, but the award was substantial enough that some level of service could be enabled.

    But I don’t want to stand in the way of any potential progress, and my lawsuit hopes are of course pie in the sky. So, I appreciate your information on this. My guess is you’ll be hired (co-opted) into a staff position, and thus hopefully make it “over the wall” and into greener pastures!

  • Inoperable Amendment Act this, Omnibus that. And the results have been predictably the same. People are going to sell drugs. Hell, if all the dealers refused, people with real jobs would start selling. The market is too big to be ignored for some artificial morality reason. As such, when people begin to deal, they have to protect themselves. What we have here in America is Mexico lite. Our guns go south to protect them so their drugs can go north. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out. Nothing. I repeat NOTHING violates the immutable laws of economics.

  • And another thing…
    Keep focusing on the weapon and you will never solve the problem. For those of you that think NYC’s law works, ask the people outside of Manhattan (Queens, Bronx,East NY, Ft. Greene) how easy it is to get a gun. Most people look at NYC’s law and think how safe their last visit to NYC. Yet, most never venture to the areas I mentioned.

    For Manhattan, the law seemingly works because of a) the density, and most importantly b) the demographics. Manhattan is very dense. And it is equally well to do. Yet, Harlem still has gun violence. Same for Washington Heights. Google “NYC Purple Haze” When you are selling that much high grade marijuana, you better have some protection.

    “Torres, 26, reputedly took over the Big Apple distribution operation after his alleged predecessor, Edward Meran, a father of seven, was gunned down in Washington Heights on Jan. 11, 2005. Meran was something of a John Gotti-like presence in his community, sponsoring the Dominican Power basketball team and founding the Dyckman Invitational Basketball League for local athletes, sources said.
    At any rate, the Purple Haze operation, which had shipments of 1000 pounds of the pot to NYC a week, was serious stuff. When $90,000 was stolen, Torres hired a polygraph expert “to give his crew lie-detector tests to see if they betrayed him and were involved in the heist.”

    Let’s face it, the vast majority of us settle our differences either in court or without gun violence. But when I can’t take you to court for selling me bad drugs, or report you to collection agencies for not paying me, then what is a dealer left to do? And on the flipside, if I know you don’t have those protections, then what would make you act rationally in return? Nothing. Both sides saddle up, arm themselves, and may the best man win.

  • Nate: Everyone is well aware of your vested interest in DC not enforcing gun laws. So we’ll just take your opinion with a grain of salt and hope that your gun is as empty as your rhetoric and your aim is as faulty as your logic.

  • My vested interest is safety. I will also say I have a vested interest in not seeing so many young black men lured by the drug trade. They ultimately end up making little money and end up in prison or dead. I have known people that have done 10 years in pursuit of making $3,000 selling weed. I have known people that have lost their life for less than $20 of drugs. I have cleaned up the blood of a middle aged man gunned down in my apt by teenagers over trivial amounts of drugs. Odentex, I’d venture to say you have no idea of my motivations.

    Guns are here to say. Get over that. Drug related violence, however, does not have to be a part of the equation.

    Take away the profit out of drugs and half the thug life wannabes won’t even be able to afford half the guns they are using to kill/shoot/maim.

  • Nate, again your problems are with a wide variety of drug warriors, such as the ONDCP and the like. I generally agree with you and likewise have lost friends and family to our farcical drug war, but I also recognize that this domestic war is one of the great cash cows and employers of our time. Thus, I think its a bit beyond our city council, given our colonial status especially. Legalizing drugs is a bit less realistic than my dream of winning enough money via lawsuits against the city to set up a shadow government.

  • Pennywise,
    I agree with you. There is tons of money in the prison complex. I used to own stock in Corrections Corp of America (CXW), the biggest prison company in America. Reading its financial statements one day for an idea of their economic outlook. CXW, GEO, and others must spend a fortune on lobbying.

    However, I am saying that unless we start at the ROOT of the problem, everything else is futile. Meetings. Omnibus acts. Marches. The only solution for us is that the drug dealers don’t congregate in our neighborhood. In effect, we are hoping that gentrification simply drives the dealer from CH to Petworth to Riggs Road to Trinidad to far SE to PG County. That’s all that will happen. Why do you think that crime, violence, omnibus crime bills do not even register as a concern among the people in G’town, Burleith, AU Park?

    It’s been 40 years if not longer of this. It is not going to stop. The only hope you have of it abating is that DC becomes like Manhattan. Frankly, I don’t see that happening in our lifetime.

  • Odentex, did you go, and how was it? Did they hire you, or just photograph the crowd so they could make a web page and say “Mendelson addressing crime concerns”? 🙂

  • Penny: I was there. I will write a more thoughtful response when I have time.

  • Ahem. Its Pennywise. I’m sort of a big deal.

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