OP-ED: President Biden’s choice for U.S. attorney should reflect D.C. values

The next U.S. attorney must possess a clear vision that honors the rule of law and embraces reform.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

By Karl A. Racine

Karl A. Racine, a Democrat, is the D.C. attorney general.

I am honored that D.C. residents have twice elected me D.C. attorney general, based in large part on my commitment to integrity, racial justice and innovative juvenile justice reform. However, because D.C. is not a state, we are denied what most other Americans have: the power to elect a local prosecutor responsible for investigating, charging and recommending sentencing for serious adult crimes. Instead, the president appoints a U.S. attorney to prosecute these local offenses.

Though it greatly affects how justice is rendered in D.C., this enormously powerful office is not directly accountable to D.C. voters. Too often, it has functioned in ways that are contrary to the values of the people who live here and are most affected by its decisions. It’s a wrong that only statehood can fully address. But President Biden can ameliorate it by choosing a U.S. attorney who will reflect the values of D.C. residents—particularly our commitment to racial justice, fairness and evidence-based criminal justice reform.

The U.S. attorney’s office is a strong institution, with more than 330 assistant U.S. attorneys and 350 additional professional staff. But the Trump administration’s appalling intrusions into the cases of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone seriously damaged the office’s morale. At the same time, each of the office’s various leaders during the Trump administration rejected our country’s clear call for a different approach to criminal prosecutions that is fair and just, evidence-based and focused on strengthening—rather than destroying—communities.

The next U.S. attorney must therefore possess a clear vision that honors the rule of law and embraces reform, along with the ability to deftly manage a large institution. Indeed, the new leader will inherit one of the most complex criminal matters in recent time: the investigation and prosecution of individuals and groups responsible for the violent attack on the Capitol. Essential will be judgment in staffing this matter with talented and hard-working lawyers, professional staff and investigators; a willingness to work collaboratively with my office, which is also investigating the matter; and a readiness to learn about the hateful ideologies behind the unprecedented attack.

Thankfully, Biden has already granted deference to Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-D.C.), a living civil rights icon committed to D.C. values. She will be leading a federal nominations commission that will be responsible for vetting applicants and recommending a pool of up to three candidates. I respectfully suggest that the commission select candidates who embody a demonstrable mix of the following traits.

The next U.S. attorney for D.C. must have a keen sense of racial justice and fairness. The overwhelming majority of the office’s work concerns the criminal prosecution of quintessentially local crimes. Too often, the Trump administration’s rotating cast of U.S. attorneys used their power to target communities of color. Perhaps the best example of such unfairness was the decision—unfortunately supported by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and former chief Peter Newsham—to shift prosecution of certain gun possession offenses from the local D.C. court to the federal court in the hopes of obtaining longer mandatory minimum sentences. A lawsuit filed by the D.C. Public Defender Service, which my office supported in an amicus brief, recently uncovered that the office disproportionately applied the policy in Black and brown neighborhoods. The next U.S. attorney should immediately abandon this blatantly discriminatory policy.

The next U.S. attorney should take care to prosecute crimes that are a priority for D.C. residents, such as hate crimes. We stand firmly against violence motivated by bias that victimizes people based on their race, color, religion, sexual identity or disability. Yet, shamefully, the U.S. attorney’s office failed to prosecute many of these crimes, even as D.C.'s reported hate offenses rose nearly 300 percent from 2015 to 2019.

Similarly, the U.S. attorney should respect, rather than undermine, criminal justice reform measures passed overwhelmingly by D.C.’s elected council. For instance, the D.C. Council passed a law that allows individuals who committed offenses as children and who have already served at least 15 years in prison to request that an experienced judge give them a second chance by reducing their sentence. While our seasoned and thoughtful judges carefully deliberated over each case to determine whether the person had demonstrated that he had transformed his life while incarcerated and did not pose a public safety risk, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney reflexively opposed every single petition. Incidentally, of those granted release by the court, none has been convicted of an offense since.

Indeed, the next U.S. attorney should follow the lead of dozens of other prosecutor offices throughout our country, including the D.C. Office of Attorney General, in identifying and implementing evidence-based criminal justice reform, such as restorative justice programs—which seek to end the cycle of mass incarceration and empower victims and communities to resolve disputes outside of the traditional criminal justice system. Now is the time to be bold and dare to pilot community-based programs such as violence-interruption efforts, which complement the work of traditional policing.

In the six years I have had the privilege of serving as D.C.'s attorney general, six people have helmed the U.S. attorney’s office, either as U.S. attorney or in an acting role. This revolving door of leadership has weakened morale and left the agency rudderless. Though the next U.S. attorney will serve at the pleasure of the president, she or he should commit to remaining on the job for the entirety of Biden’s first term.

D.C.’s limited home rule authority has left prosecution of adult local offenses to unelected and unaccountable federal prosecutors. Until we are granted statehood, Biden should ensure that our city’s next top federal prosecutor embraces and implements the values of racial justice and reform that the great majority of our residents cherish.