DC’s Police Chief: Getting a Handle on Violent Crime

The District is far and away a safer city than it was twenty years ago. But the past year has seen an increase in robberies and violent crime. At the same time, the DC Council is considering legislation that would reduce sentences for many violent offenders. Last week we hosted Peter Newsham, Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, to talk about how best to get a handle on the surge in violent crime.

Robberies are up 10 percent from last year, and this includes everything from snatching a phone to using a weapon to demand money. The biggest increase has been in the area stretching form Logan Circle to Columbia Heights. The suspects arrested are usually juveniles. The problem, Chief Newsham says, is that these kids are put on probation and placed right back onto the streets into the same circumstances they were in before. They aren’t getting enough support or social services.

Homicides are also up 10 percent from last year, which is on the heels of a 30 percent increase in 2018. Much of this increase is because shootings have become more lethal. Chief Newsham thinks that harsher penalties for illegal firearms possession could go a long way toward lowering homicides. Nearly half of those arrested for homicide have a previous gun arrest and nearly half were also under some kind of supervision when arrested. Recidivism for gun offenders is also high at about 70 percent.

But sentencing guidelines have been trending toward more leniency. In 2018, the DC Sentencing Commission reduced the recommended sentence for felons who were found in possession of an illegal firearm. In 2016, the DC Council passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment (IRA) Act, which allowed a prisoner to petition for early release if he or she had already served 15 years and were under the age of 18 when the crime was committed. This includes those who committed violent crimes like murder and sexual assault. Almost all the prisoners who were eligible—20 of 21 so far—have been released ahead of schedule. The DC Council is now considering expanding IRA eligibility to those who were under age 25 at the time of the crime, which would mean approximately 600 offenders, the majority of whom are convicted murderers and rapists, would become eligible for early release.

Chief Newsham is not a fan of expanding IRA age eligibility. We still don’t know what recidivism could look like, since the first group was released only 18 months ago. But many are gun offenders, and we know gun offenders generally have high recidivism rates. The DC Council has specifically stipulated that judges should not factor in the heinousness of the crime committed when evaluating the petition. A murderer or rapist, for example, would be as likely to be released as any other felon. Nor are there requirements for a mental health examination. Incurable psychopaths would very likely be released.

Chief Newsham worries District residents will be less safe with these kinds of violent criminals back on the streets, and it sends the wrong signal to would-be violent criminals.

Most importantly, though, the proposal doesn’t take the views of the victims or their families into account. He thinks this is unfair and that they should have a say in the process.