Summer of simple assault

Capitol Hill experienced a significant spike in crime this summer - assaults, robberies, shootings, and car thefts proliferated in the steamy months of May, June, July, and August. Unfortunately, the individuals who committed these crimes aren't in jail. Instead, they're free because the Department of Justice refuses to prosecute them and absent oversight from the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, this policy will continue unabated.

I'm the advisory neighborhood commissioner for 6B10 - an area spanning 15th to 19th Streets SE and East Capitol Street to Massachusetts Avenue. Every morning, neighbors greet each other as they walk their dogs or walk to the metro to get to work. Our small-town life was horribly disrupted when an elderly neighbor was hit by an individual a third of his age. It was 8 a.m., the sun was shining, and out of the blue he was clocked in the face.

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The police call this type of assault a "simple assault." My neighbor sustained dark black bruises but no stitches were required. The lack of stitches or concussion is important because the Department of Justice U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO), the entity responsible for prosecuting simple assaults in Washington, DC, does not prosecute all of these crimes. Instead, they divert them so the assailant walks free while the victim suffers.  And this summer, there were many victims of simple assault. 

When a simple assault occurs, the police write a report of the incident and the next step is to find the assailant. Unfortunately, many victims can't provide the police with enough details so it's difficult to find and arrest this person. Without an arrest, the USAO can't prosecute.

The likelihood of prosecution is further diminished by the fact that the USAO does not file charges for all simple assaults. During a meeting last week with USAO attorneys, I was told that USAO can decline to prosecute a case. How many cases go unpapered and therefore uncharged I asked in my role as an ANC commissioner. We're not going to tell you, they replied. That information is considered pre-decisional.

Ok. Then how many cases does the USAO prosecute? According to a 2014 Department of Justice report, the prosecution rate for misdemeanors, including simple assault, in Washington, DC is 38 percent. Why is the number so low? The USAO's answer shocked me. Over half of the misdemeanors are diverted which means that the individuals punching Capitol Hill residents aren't prosecuted and therefore, no record exists of the assaults.

The USAO tried to tell me last week that the cases they divert involve first-time offenders. But how will the police or prosecutors know if someone is a first-time offender if the USAO keeps dismissing the charges? No answer. Just assurances from the USAO that they are diligently pursuing criminals.

The next question should have been a home run. How many simple assaults have occurred this year on Capitol Hill and how many of these cases have you prosecuted? The USAO told me that they couldn't answer the question because they don't track the assaults. They could give me information on a single case but, as they kept telling me over and over again, USAO attorneys aren't statisticians.

This situation can't continue. Residents are being assaulted; the police don't apprehend all of the assailants; and the majority of the ones they do apprehend aren't being arrested or prosecuted. The House and Senate Judiciary Committee have primary jurisdiction over the U.S. Attorney's Office and it's my hope they mandate immediate action. Walking in one's neighborhood isn't a privilege, it's a right and one that should be protected.

Rucker Krepp, a former chief council for U.S. Maritime Administration, is a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner.

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