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).
3) PIN DOWN COUNCIL
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