Congress can help us keep career criminals in prison
For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Tennessee
D. Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney Western District Tennessee
Guest columnist (The Commercial Appeal)
From 1964 to 1980, the violent crime rate tripled in this country. So did robbery. The murder rate doubled. Aggravated assault nearly tripled.
This was an alarming time for communities across this country. In 1984, Congress passed the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which gave federal prosecutors a powerful new tool to fight the rise in crime. This law helped prosecutors put away the most violent criminals by requiring a minimum 15-year sentence for felons who were caught with a firearm after their third robbery or burglary conviction.
United States Attorneys put this new tool to use, going after violent offenders and putting them in jail. By 1992, violent crime had begun a historic decline. From 1991 to 2014, violent crime fell by half; murder fell by half; aggravated assault fell by 47 percent and robbery by nearly two thirds.
I have no doubt that much of this decline was due to keeping the most violent criminals off the streets for a longer time. Here in West Tennessee, the ACCA has long been a key tool used by prosecutors in our Project Safe Neighborhoods unit, which aggressively targets repeat violent offenders and removes them from our streets.
But in 2015—after 30 years on the books—one line of the ACCA was struck down by the Supreme Court as being too vague. Because of this significant ruling in Johnson v. United States, every federal prosecutor lost one of our most valuable tools.
Now is the time for Congress to fix the ACCA and restore this tool to our toolbox.
More than 1,400 criminals—each convicted of at least three prior felonies—have been let out of jail since the ruling in Johnson. So far, more than 600 have been arrested again. On average, these 600 criminals have reoffended or been arrested three times since 2015. A majority of those who have been out of prison for two years have already been arrested again.
Federal courts in West Tennessee released numerous prisoners due to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Many of these releasees, who were initially prosecuted under the ACCA, have reoffended and violated terms of their supervised release.
For example, one defendant—about a year after being released—was charged with murder and firearm offenses in Shelby County Criminal Court. Another was sentenced to almost two additional years in federal prison after he (again) illegally possessed a firearm. And a third released defendant had his supervised release revoked twice for drug crimes, before being sent back to prison.
These statistics and examples of recidivism are shocking, but they are likely an underrepresentation of these criminals’ illegal activity. Any prosecutor will tell you that criminals rarely get caught on their first offense and that they often make plea bargains in which they admit to one of their lesser crimes rather than to their most serious crime.
Those plea bargains are a big reason why prosecutors need to have ACCA in our toolbox again. When we’re negotiating with a serious, repeat offender, we have a lot more leverage when they’re facing a 15-year sentence than when they’re facing, for example, a 5-year sentence.
I’ve seen time and again that members of violent criminal conspiracies are more likely to cooperate with us and hand over their ringleaders and kingpins when they’re facing long sentences than when they have hope of getting off early. They might serve two years for their bosses, but they won’t serve 30.
Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke in Little Rock and called for Congress to fix ACCA. As he correctly stated, keeping violent career criminals off of our streets “shouldn’t be controversial.” It has been approximately three years since the Supreme Court’s ruling and hundreds of Americans have already been needlessly victimized by released violent felons. How many more will be victimized this year? Or the next? Or the next?
With every day that passes, the likelihood goes up that these repeat-felons will commit more crimes. So this is urgent, and time is of the essence. Congress needs to fix ACCA so that we prosecutors can keep the most violent offenders behind bars and get more criminals to hand over their leaders. One more victim is too many.
Updated August 13, 2018