Perhaps the most agonizing thing in my final days as a trial lawyer—at the D.C. Public Defender Service, over a decade ago—was the long hours spent trying to persuade young Black male teenagers, some charged as adults, some legally defined as adults (despite still-tender ages), to plead guilty in carjacking cases—the least awful option they had.
Indigent, impetuous, and often inadequately loved and nurtured, these Black boys incongruously grow up in the shadow of rich, white marble monuments; they exist in the perilous margins, living close to—but figuratively far from—the halls of power of our “shining city on a hill.” Invariably these boys were—and they still are—shipped off to unconscionably full federal prisons; there they serve a significant spell of their already shattered lives—the shards of which stick out, sharply, in social service records, and ineffably sad sentencing memoranda.
Due to our country’s infatuation with incarceration as a response to crime—as evidenced on a micro-level in D.C.—and, because D.C. doesn’t have its own prison (where families of the incarcerated can feasibly commute), a federal prison potentially far from home was, and still is, the inevitable destination of a not insignificant share of the District’s vulnerable, young Black men charged with violent crime.
Now I want to be clear: Violent crime has devastating effects, and we must as a society take morally sound, informed steps, to stamp it out. But American cities, such as D.C., must remain conscious that, despite the steady drumbeat of sensational crime stories reported in the press, whether crime—violent or nonviolent—is truly on the rise or not on the rise, is highly malleable statistically. As we saw with the recent fallout surrounding the recall of San Francisco’s “reform prosecutor” Chesa Boudin, crime statistics can easily be manipulated for all sorts of political and other reasons.
Also, before I go further, and as I’ve written about elsewhere, it’s important to acknowledge violent crime is something that can and does occur anywhere, at any time, to anyone; our current mass shooting epidemic has perhaps thrust this fact of being alive into our daily consciousness more than anything else. But violence rarely occurs in a vacuum. Most often, it swirls up from egregious economic and emotional deprivation and/or beyond-the-pale physical and mental suffering. It is our reaction to suffering and to violence, our desire to root out its causes and prevent its reoccurrence, not the exacting of punishment for it that will determine our humanity.
That’s one reason why good people everywhere, people who want our country to move away from mass incarceration, and toward decarceration, are so aghast—and angry—with President Biden’s recent betrayal of D.C.’s Black youth. If you haven’t heard about this presidential perfidy yet, or if you’re unfamiliar with the details, Reason’s Billy Binion adeptly summarized the precise legal issues at play in his piece, “Biden Embraces Fearmongering, Vows to Squash D.C.’s Mild Criminal Justice Reforms.” (Mark Joseph Stern also wrote a convincing primer for Slate called, “Why Biden Stabbed D.C. in the Back.”)
In a nutshell: Despite consistently casting himself as a champion of statehood and home rule for D.C., Biden announced on March 2nd, in a tweet, he would not veto a Republican-led effort in Congress to override a new criminal code put forth by the democratically elected city council. In his highly scrutinized tweet—its patent illogic and internal inconsistency critiqued by many—Biden said: “I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule—but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections—such as lowering penalties for carjackings.” (Mayor Bowser’s misguided concerns, echoed by Biden, are thoroughly debunked in an insightful interview of Patrice Sulton—who helped write the reform legislation—published in the Washingtonian called, “What Everyone Is Getting Wrong About DC’s Controversial Crime Bill.”)
As Sulton—and Binion and Stern—point out, the modest reforms in the Council’s proposed legislation (which the Council’s chairman has now withdrawn due to Biden’s opposition), wouldn’t actually have resulted in lowering the already existing overly-punitive sentences that—since my time as a D.C. Public Defender, and, still today—are being meted out to young Black teens for carjacking.
But for criminal justice reform efforts as a whole there’s no telling how far-reaching the damaging effects of Biden caving to Republican—and mostly media-created and driven—crime hysteria will be. What is clear is Biden has fully regressed to his tough-on-crime persona from the 1980s and 90s, the harmful effects of which are still being felt in the tattered lives of so many forced to suffer its brunt.
Biden promised progressive voters he’d be a reformer on the death penalty, on mass incarceration, on immigration, on marijuana, on police brutality—even on the long-suffering efforts of the citizenry of D.C. to achieve representation in Congress, and the right to govern their own affairs, free from the yoke of historically racist, patriarchal, paternalistic, federal supervision. (In May 1999, D.C.’s non-voting Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote with respect to the District’s disenfranchisement that, “[t]his unseemly state of affairs cannot endure whether in a free country or a despotic nation.”)
As President, Joe Biden has bald-facedly backtracked on all of these promises, promises it’s clear he only voiced support for for political reasons—namely, to become president.
The ramifications of Biden’s lies will be long-felt, even in the wake of Trump’s terrible tenure, but it’s the betrayal of D.C.’s Black youth I want to highlight today—and not just the betrayal of those somber-eyed broken Black boys whom I used to sit across from at the D.C. Jail (the boys whose moods I tried unsuccessfully, given the choking, smothering bleakness of their situation, to brighten.)
Before I became a public defender, and in law school, I was a “Marshall-Brennan Fellow” for my then-Constitutional law professor, Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin; in that capacity I taught high school students in D.C., for a semester, about their constitutional rights and responsibilities, including a special curriculum on the lack of representation in Congress for D.C. residents.
My final paper for Professor/Congressman Raskin about this experience—now over twenty years old, that I’ve held onto all these years—was titled “Attention Congress, Supreme Court, and America: District Youth Will Fight to Win Their Right to Representation in Congress.” In the paper, I quoted several of my then-students fierce and fabulous rhetoric; the poignancy and power of their words hold up, and I am again pressing them here—for your consideration:
“[Congress] take[s] our tax money and what do we get in return? Nothing. We are DC citizens, but what does that mean to them? Nothing. To them we are just negroes taking up space. To them, we are just negroes taking up space. To them, we are not even considered a human race! And why you ask? It’s all because of the color of our skin. Although there is nothing we can do about the color of our skin, because we are black and proud, something has to be done about our vote.”
“[Congress does] not stop to think about what is behind the White House, the expensive monuments, and all the other tourist attractions in Washington, D.C. They don’t care about the corrupt school systems, or all the unwed teenage mothers, or the police brutality, or the fact that I cannot walk down the street in my neighborhood without being scared of a bullet flying past.”
“You treat us as second-class citizens. You must think of us as having no worth, no value at all. But we have value and worth, and we deserve the right to vote.
“We have a delegate who speaks on our behalf, but that really is not enough. We are citizens of this great country called America, so why are we denied the right to vote? Yes, I know that we are not a state, but give us a chance. What is so wrong about the citizens of D.C.?”
D.C.’s Black youth of today—and of tomorrow—are no less deserving of consideration than my former students. They certainly don’t deserve presidential betrayal.