An Interview with Irvin Nathan, Attorney General for The District of Columbia

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Our show today, ladies and gentlemen interviews the Attorney General of the District of Columbia Mr. Irvin Nathan and Andrew Fois, head of the Public Safety Division. They’re both at our microphones today to talk about crime in the District of Columbia and to the Attorney General, and to Andrew Fois, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Irvin Nathan: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

Len Sipes: All right, so first of all DC and crime. Crime has really decreased in the District of Columbia over the course of the last 15 or 20 years, it’s been remarkable. We’ve had a variety of criminologists, both in the District of Columbia, and throughout the country, who have talked about the decrease in crime. What’s your perspective, Mr. Attorney General?

Irvin Nathan: Well, I agree. There’s been a remarkable decrease in the crime rate in the District of Columbia. Our homicides are down significantly over the last several years. But we’re still concerned; and we’re concerned about the proliferation of robberies, a lot of it dealing with cell phones. So we’re still vigilant to deal with the crime problem and working very hard at it. But it has gone down and we’re very gratified about that.

Len Sipes: What’s the cause of the decrease?

Irvin Nathan: Well, I think the community policing headed up by Chief Lanier is a principal reason for the decrease. I think increased programs, diversion of youth who get in trouble, and obviously, we’ve had some tough sentences from our courts, and the combination I think has led to the decrease.

Len Sipes: And homicides have hit a 50 year low. Now think about that. I mean we have cities in the United States, such as Chicago, such as Baltimore, many others, who are really struggling with homicides, yet in the District of Columbia, homicides have hit a 50 year low.

Irvin Nathan: Yeah. We’re very gratified by that, but also very chagrined over the mass killings at the navy yard this year.

Len Sipes: Uh huh.

Irvin Nathan: That was a very unfortunate situation, and it deals with an issue that’s very important to us, which is gun control. I think we have a very good gun control system in the District of Columbia, but we’re always subject to litigation on that. We have litigation going on, and we have the oversight by the Congress, which hasn’t always helped our gun control situation.

Len Sipes: Now, armed robberies in the city have always been a problem. They’re a problem in any city. And in District of Columbia, a lot of it has to do with cell phones and tablets.

Irvin Nathan: Correct. And so we’re trying to deal with that as well. Make these go away useless after they are stolen and other steps that we’re taking to try to reduce the incidents of robberies. And of course we’re very concerned about the armed robberies in that situation. But so we’ll be vigilant, and try to work on that as well, and we’re continuing to do that.

Len Sipes: Now your office is unique. One of the – we get a lot of new reporters here in the District of Columbia, in fact I have a fact sheet on my organization, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, for all these new reporters. And a lot of times they will call me and say, “Leonard, what is the difference between the United States Attorney’s Office and the DC Attorney General’s Office? Who prosecutes what? We’re very confused as to how that works.” DC has a very complicated criminal justice system from the standpoint of federal agencies and local agencies. Explain your office?

Irvin Nathan: It is a difficult concept. And of course it all stems from Congress, and it stems from a century ago. In the District of Columbia, as a result of congressional legislation, the US Attorney’s Office prosecutes the normal street crimes, the crimes that we think of as local problems. So they deal with the murders, and rapes, and robberies, on our street, as well of course as federal crimes, which all US Attorneys do throughout the country. And those prosecutions of the street crimes take place in, by the US Attorney’s Office in our Superior Court, for the most part. They may also sometimes be in the Federal District Court. Our office deals with all the juvenile crimes, which are quite significant in our dealing with juvenile crimes, which is a very large part of the criminal problem in the District of Columbia. We deal with very significant problems, including murders, and rapes, and robberies, committed by juveniles, and usually on juveniles, but not always.

Len Sipes: So everybody under the age of 18 falls under the auspices of your office?

Irvin Nathan: Right. Now, there are some rare circumstances where juveniles can be tried as adults, and when that happens, it’s tried by the US Attorney’s Office. But for the most part, we try all the cases that are under 18, and there are some very serious cases. When it’s not so serious, we try to use diversion to avoid getting the juveniles into the criminal justice system.

Len Sipes: Now that carries a certain level of controversy, because there is an awful lot of people, I mean I’ve been in the system for over 40 years, I would guess that you have as well. We’ve both been exposed to criticism as to, “My God! This person just did this or did that, burglarized, or did graffiti, an act of graffiti, or stole from me, and I want that person prosecuted, I want that 16 year old, that individual prosecuted.” In some cases it’s better for justice to divert that person from the criminal justice system, especially if they do not have a significant record, correct?

Irvin Nathan: Absolutely. If it’s a first time offense and if it’s nonviolent we’ll try do a diversion. But of course if it’s a recidivist, and it’s violent, then of course we will proceed criminally, it’s in the family court, and they could be incarcerated up to their 21st birthday.

Len Sipes: Okay. Mr. Attorney General, do you hold an elected position, are you appointed, how did you assume this responsibility?

Irvin Nathan: My position was appointed. I was appointed by Mayor Gray at the beginning of his administration in January 2011. However, there is going to come a time when this position is going to be an elective position. In 2010, the Council voted to make it elective, and there was a referendum, and the populace of the District of Columbia decided they wanted to have an elected Attorney General. However, the council has recently postponed that election, which originally was scheduled for 2014. And that election has to be at the beginning of a term of a new mayor, and so currently that election is set for 2018, and the person would take the position in January 2019.

Len Sipes: How long have you been in the position?

Irvin Nathan: I’ve been here for three years, since January of 2011.

Len Sipes: Now three years is enough time to know, and more than enough time to know, and you probably knew it way before you got here. What did you do before you got here?

Irvin Nathan: Immediately before, I was the General Counsel of the United States House of Representatives, when Nancy Pelosi was the speaker. And before that, I had been in private practice, but I’d also been at the Department of Justice on two occasions. I was at the Department of Justice in 1979, in the Criminal Division, serving as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General. And then I was also in the Department of Justice at the beginning of the Clinton Administration as the top aide to the Deputy Attorney General.

Len Sipes: So you have been around for a long time? You’ve been –

Irvin Nathan: I’ve been around a long time.

Len Sipes: You’ve been in the criminal justice system for a long time. And so what’s your perspective after three years as being the Attorney General for the District of Columbia?

Irvin Nathan: Well, I think the system works well, and that we’ve cooperated well with the Department of Justice, but I do think that there should be some changes. When I first came in, we had a situation where we had a corrupt city councilman, and our investigation disclosed that. But we, because we don’t have felony jurisdiction of adults, could not bring a criminal charge. As a result we brought a civil suit to recover the $400,000 that he had stolen. We got a settlement, but we also had to refer the matter to the US Attorney’s Office. I think the law should be changed so that crimes that are committed against the District, where the District is the victim, such as where there’s thievery from our public officials, that we should have the opportunity to prosecute that. And I’ve been working with the US Attorney here, Ron Machen, and with the Department of Justice, to try to seek Congressional legislation, so that in certain circumstances, in serious cases of theft from the District of Columbia, and other crimes like that, we would have jurisdiction to prosecute.

Len Sipes: Andrew, I want to bring you into this conversation as well. Again, one of the things I started off with, and in terms of explaining the District of Columbia, and the criminal justice system. We’re the parole and probation agency for the District of Columbia, but we’re a federal agency.

Andrew Fios: All right.

Len Sipes: The courts receive federal funding, Pretrial is a federal agency, Public Defender’s Office receives federal funding. You couple that up against, or with, not up against, but the United States Attorney’s Office, which is federal, the District of Columbia Police Department and Metropolitan Police Department, which is local, the Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services for Juveniles, which is local. So you have this mishmash of federal and, if you will, state agencies, federal and local agencies, and you would think that that would create a problem, but, you know, I came from the Maryland criminal justice system, and I see more cooperation in the District of Columbia and better sense of people getting along than I ever saw in the state of Maryland.

Andrew Fios: Well, I think despite the problems that you point to of structural differences, and different funding sources, and different authorizations, that we do our work together remarkably well. And that work is done mainly by about three taskforces and working groups that all of the various agencies participate in, one at the federal level that Ron Machen chairs, one at the local level that the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, Paul Quander, chairs, and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee that Mannone Butler chairs.

Irvin Nathan: Right.

Andrew Fios: And they’re both – well, everyone comes to the table, all the stakeholders, federal and local, and when we need to something in tandem, we generally do it through the auspices of one or more of those three groups.

Irvin Nathan: I want to make one correction.

Len Sipes: Yeah, please.

Irvin Nathan: What I understood is exactly right. But Mannone Butler is the Executive Director of the Coordinating Council, and Paul Quander, and now Nancy Ware of CSOSA are the chair.

Len Sipes: But every city – I mean we’re all students of the criminal justice system, especially you, Mr. Attorney General, because you’ve been at the federal level for a long time. We recognize the fact that the structures that we just talked about exist throughout the United States. There are criminal justice coordinating councils out there, there’s a mixture of federal and local agencies out there. I maintain that, in the District of Columbia, the District of Columbia is extremely well served by this combination of agencies, because most of them are federally funded; they have the resources in the federal government. We have, in CSOSA, have more resources than the average parole and probation agency. The coordination level seems to be there, everybody’s talking to each other well. I guess my basic question is why? Why does everybody, why does the system seem to get along as well as it does, because it doesn’t in other cities?

Irvin Nathan: Yeah. Well, I think first of all, when I was at the Department of Justice, we made very significant efforts to make it work across the country, by committees and cooperation, and we brought people together. I think it works in the District, because first of all, it has existed for a very long time, and second, because people who take these jobs are committed to making it work and recognize that you have to work together to make it effective. And I think, for example, Ron Machen and I get long extremely well, we coordinate our activities, and we know what each other is doing, and I think that that helps significantly.

Len Sipes: But your office is not a small office. We’re talking about 20,000 cases a year. We’re talking about 60 attorneys. We’re talking about a variety of divisions. That’s a lot of cases and that’s a lot of people. I mean you have a larger Attorney General’s Office in states.

Irvin Nathan: Well, yeah, there are –

Len Sipes: In some states.

Irvin Nathan: Yeah, our Attorney General’s Office actually is about 700 people. And that includes 150 lawyers who are in the various agencies that we supervise. For example, there’s a General Council of the Department of the Metropolitan Police Department and a General Council of the Fire Department, and we supervise their activity. So it’s maybe not quite as large as it sounds. In terms of litigation, Andy’s team is much smaller than the 60. How many lawyers are there in the – we’re doing the prosecution.

Andrew Fios: Well, about 45 that do the day to day prosecution of our juvenile work and our adult misdemeanor work.

Irvin Nathan: Uh huh.

Andrew Fios: The number 60 that you used is right when you put in some of the civil folks who bring civil nuisance abatement cases, and then the lawyers from the six general councils, that are under the auspices of the Public Safety Division, and they don’t litigate but they service the MPD, Fire Department, Department of Corrections, those agencies in the public safety cluster.

Irvin Nathan: So what I wanted to emphasize is that there are actually fewer prosecutors, maybe, so we have about 45, to handle all of those cases. These are people who are very hard working, who are overburdened with very large case loads. And frankly, I think that the next budget session we’re going to have to ask for some increase in terms of the numbers of prosecutors, the people that we have that are trying cases. One thing we haven’t mentioned in terms of – because when you started on our criminal part. We do all of the juvenile cases, but in addition, we deal with some significant misdemeanors that are adult misdemeanors as well, including impaired driving. And drunk driving is a serious problem in the District as elsewhere, and we have a large contingent that are committed to that, and we pursue that. We’ve had some problems there that we inherited from the prior administration when we had these breathalyzers that weren’t calibrated quite correctly and we couldn’t use the scores. We’ve now corrected that situation. We’ve changed, we’ve had an amendment of the statute that has made it more, clearer, and we’ve gotten larger sentences as a result. So we’re very serious about prosecuting impaired driving, which means not only drunk driving from alcohol, but also impaired by drugs.

Len Sipes: Well, as a former state trooper, I thank you for that. But I do want to, before we get to the break and before I reintroduce you, I want to nail this down. You are in essence the prosecutor, the attorneys representing the District of Columbia…?

Irvin Nathan: Correct.

Len Sipes: Which is larger in terms of a lot of states, or some states out there? You have responsibility principally for juveniles, people under the age of 18 committing a crime in the District of Columbia, the drinking and driving cases, and there are other misdemeanors, from what I understand, that you are responsible for.

Irvin Nathan: Right. There’re quality of life misdemeanors that we deal with as well.

Len Sipes: Our show today is featuring the DC Attorney General talking about crime control and how his office operates. It’s a very, very interesting office. Irv Nathan is the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. Andrew Fois is the head of the Public Safety Division. Gentlemen, we return back to the structure of the program. So when people say the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, again, I know what the United States Attorney’s Office does. But do they instantaneously recognize the importance of your office? Do they fully understand that you are a major player within the criminal justice system in the District of Columbia?

Irvin Nathan: Well, I think they do. But obviously our responsibilities extend far beyond criminal responsibilities. I just need to mention that briefly. We represent the District in all of the civil litigation, both the affirmative civil litigation that we bring to defend the interests of the city and to defend against law suits that are brought against the city. We provide legal opinions to the mayor, and to the agencies, and on occasion, to the City council. We also deal with abused, neglected children, with foster children too. We pursue noncustodial parents who do not provide the support payments as they’re required to do by court order for children in the District. So we have a broad range of activities, which is why we have so many people in our office. But of course, the criminal part of it is a major part and is recognized as such by the US Attorney’s Office and by the other agencies within the criminal justice system.

Len Sipes: We’re talking about 16,000 criminal cases a year?

Irvin Nathan: That our office processes.

Len Sipes: Right. That your office, that your offices –

Irvin Nathan: That does not include of course the criminal cases that the US Attorney’s Office is handling.

Andrew Fios: And that’s not the juveniles either.

Len Sipes: Right.

Andrew Fios: 16,000…

Len Sipes: Oh, that’s not the juveniles.

Andrew Fios: Adult misdemeanors.

Len Sipes: How many cases total between the civil cases, between representing the city government, between all? Put all of these combined, I mean it’s a huge number.

Irvin Nathan: It’s well over 20,000.

Len Sipes: That amazing. Well over 20,000 individual cases on a yearly basis.

Irvin Nathan: Correct.

Len Sipes: That is a huge responsibility.

Irvin Nathan: Correct.

Len Sipes: My heavens! I mean I did not realize that the scope of it was as high as it is. Traffic cases, you deal with those as well, correct?

Irvin Nathan: We deal with traffic cases. We don’t deal with the homicides in traffic cases. Those are handled by the US Attorney’s Office. But very severe offenses we do handle.

Len Sipes: Okay. Firearms, quality of life, traffic, tax and welfare fraud, I mean that’s, again, it really is a huge responsibility. Anything else about the drinking and driving, the impaired driving part of it because, again, as somebody who spent six years law enforcement that’s pretty close to my heart?

Irvin Nathan: Well, we work with a variety of agencies in the impaired driving situation. First of all of course we work with the MPD, and our office of the Chief Medical Examiner, who are responsibility for getting these instruments, and getting the calibration right on our breath control equipment. But we also work with the Capital Police, with the Park Police, and with others, who also make arrests for drunk driving, and we prosecute the cases that they bring that are within the District of Columbia. So it’s a variety of agencies that we are working with that we have helped train on the new equipment and train in the new statute that the Council has passed in the last year that we drafted and that provides for increased penalties, including, for example, penalties of commercial drivers, taxi cabs and truck drivers, and also requires restraints by children, that if there are children in the car and they’re not properly restrained, that adds penalties to anyone who is caught driving in an impaired fashion.

Len Sipes: You also work in terms of cross-prosecutions for the United States Attorney’s Office. There was one. There was a very serious homicide at a Metro station, Metro, meaning a subway station.

Irvin Nathan: Right. Yeah, we had a very serious murder at a subway stop about a year ago. And there were a number of youths involved. We worked closely with the US Attorney’s Office. They took some of those perpetrators as to be tried as adults. We tried the remainder as juveniles. All of them were convicted and have been sentenced. And the cooperation was exemplary in that case between our office and theirs. In addition, we have the ability to be cross-designated as Assistant US Attorneys and to prosecute that where our lawyers are involved. But those cases are brought in the name of the US Attorney, in the name of the US government, and the decisions there are made ultimately by the US Attorney.

Len Sipes: There are other homicide cases involved with your office as well, right?

Irvin Nathan: Absolutely. We have three attempted murder cases that are being tried right now. These are juvenile cases so I obviously can’t, because of confidentiality rules, we can’t disclose the names or the circumstances of those matters, but I can assure you, these are serious matters. They’re very significantly contested. The public defender service in the District is very aggressive and provides very good representation to the defendants. The courts take the rules of procedure and the rules of evidence very seriously in these matters. So these are very hard fought and difficult cases and our prosecutors have done an exemplary job in them.

Len Sipes: I want to get back to your history once again because I find it to be extraordinary that you have been in the Department of Justice, you have advised senior people at the federal level way before coming to this position here.

Irvin Nathan: Correct.

Len Sipes: We talked before about what I believe is, and not me, but lots of people believe are the dysfunctional aspects of the criminal justice system throughout the country. There are some cities that have cut their law enforcement agencies back by 50%, and New Jersey certainly comes to mind. There are some cities that have cut back on parole and probation agents. The prosecutor’s offices have been cut back, the public defender’s office, especially at the federal level – there’s been a huge hue and cry in terms of the fact that they’re questioning the ability of performing at an acceptable level. They’re talking about justice itself being placed in peril. That does not happen in the District of Columbia. And that’s why I sometimes wonder if the folk in the District of Columbia, if the folks in the metropolitan area within the District of Columbia, if they realize how good they have it compared to other cities throughout the country.

Irvin Nathan: Well, we know that public safety is a very important issue for the District of Columbia. First of all it’s the capital of the nation; it’s a showcase for the criminal justice system. And also tourism is a very major part of the economy in the District. And we recognize that unless the place is completely safe and it overcomes a long ago reputation as not being safe, that tourism will decline, and that the people that make our federal laws will, and who supervise the District of Columbia, will see this and will react. So we have worked very hard to make this a very safe place to come and to visit and to work for the federal officials who work here. I think we’ve succeeded in that regard.

Len Sipes: We’ve had officials from RAND in front of these microphones; we’ve had people from the Urban Institute in front of these microphones, talking about what the District of Columbia used to be. Now I worked for the National Crime Prevention Council a long time ago. I worked for the Department of Justice’s clearing house a long time ago. I remember the District of Columbia. It was not a pleasant place. Downtown was not a pleasant place. The neighborhoods were not pleasant places. Crime has plummeted in the District of Columbia. I mean there’s been a significant reduction in crime, significant reduction I do believe in fear of crime, although I can’t think of a measure right off the top of my head, and I’m just not quite sure that everybody in the District of Columbia understands the profound difference between 1980, 1990, and current year.

Irvin Nathan: Well, I think one thing that you need to focus on is that we know have home rule in the District. We have officials both on our city council and the mayor who are elected and responsive to the citizens who clearly want a safe city for themselves. And I think that that has had a major impact on the provisions in the city that have led to a safer, more livable, more enjoyable environment for us. And that’s really what I’m promoting in terms of some additional legislation from the Congress to be sure that the Attorney General’s Office, including in the future, an elected Attorney General’s Office, will have more control over the criminal prosecution of certain kinds of crimes where the District is the victim of those crimes.

Len Sipes: Uh huh. Andrew, did you want to chime in on any of that? You’ve been around for a long time yourself.

Andrew Fios: I have been. I’ve been living here since I was 17, and I’m 55 now, so you can do the math. It was 38 years ago.

Irvin Nathan: You’re a youngster.

Andrew Fios: And I –

Len Sipes: A young man in this room.

Andrew Fios: But I have seen the city change substantially from when much of it was burned out with high rates of violent crime, just double on what the Attorney General said. And also you can see it in the behavior of people and businesses. People are moving into the city, young people, in the desirable demographic of 25 to 35, and with money. And businesses are sprouting up and there’s construction all over. And those sorts of activities would not be going on if they weren’t aware of the fact that they were moving into safe neighborhoods and safe communities.

Len Sipes: And it’s critical. The concept of safe neighborhoods and safe communities is critical for everything else that goes on within the District of Columbia. And that formula applies to every city in the United States and every state in the United States.

Irvin Nathan: I think that’s absolutely right. And that’s the motto of the mayor is “One City.” And so it’s important that throughout the city, in all parts, not just the downtown areas, not just the parts that the federal government occupies here, but where the citizens reside, is safe and a pleasant place to live. And I think we’re working on achieving that.

Len Sipes: We only have a couple minutes left. Before leaving I did want to get around to truancy. Truancy is a huge problem, again, in every city in the country. And the District of Columbia it seems to be attacking it systematically, it seems to be attacking it in a way that other cities are incapable of attacking it. Tell me about that.

Irvin Nathan: Well, truancy is serious problem in the District as well as in other cities in the country. I think there are other cities that are working hard to reduce truancy, and the District certainly is committed to reducing truancy, both the mayor has task force on it and the city council is very interested in reducing truancy. As far as it being a law enforcement issue, we take the position that it’s a last resort rather than a first resort. This is a social problem and we need to provide social services to the families of those who are truant, be sure the parents are involved; understand the importance of education and understand the importance of attendance in the schools. And we’re working with the social service agencies to reduce truancy, and obviously working with the school system, which is in the District, under the control of the mayor.

Len Sipes: Okay, in the final minute of the program. What you’re talking about, what I am hearing from both of you is a measured response to individuals caught up in the criminal justice system. In the case of juvenile diversion, in the case of truancy, find a sense of leniency and diversion for first time defenders, trying to divert them from the criminal justice system, but when necessary, bring the full force of the criminal justice system down on the people who pose the greatest risk to public safety. Is that it?

Irvin Nathan: That’s a very fair summary. We have to be sensible about this. We don’t want to have our prisons populated with juveniles. We don’t want juveniles connected to adult felons. We want them to be rehabilitated after a commission of a single or a nonviolent crime. So we’re very interested in diversion and getting productive, educated youth in our society.

Len Sipes: Mr. Attorney General, I really appreciate you being at the microphones today. Andrew, I appreciate you being by the microphones today, because your office is extraordinarily important and DC is such a success. I keep harping on that. But DC is a success. And it’s a success because of the Attorney General’s Office and also the allied criminal justice agencies, law enforcement, prosecution, parole and probation. So I think everybody can take a bit of bow in terms of getting along with each other.

Irvin Nathan: Well, we very much appreciate it. But we need to be vigilant. We need to keep up the hard work. We need to have the right appropriations from our legislatures. Thank you very much.

Len Sipes: Our guests today have been DC Attorney General Irv Nathan, and also Andrew Fois, head of the Public Safety Division. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate the calls. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms. And we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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