August 31 on Fourth Street N.W., in Judiciary Square, as federal and municipal employees stream back to their offices after lunch. The monumental edifices of Judiciary Square are a daunting display of law and order in the nation’s capital. Here stand the FBI headquarters, the D.C. Superior Court, and the mayor’s offices. Within another massive complex, Judiciary Center, are located the offices of Wilma A. Lewis ’81, the new U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
A pass through a metal detector and an elevator ride land a visitor at the surprisingly low-key quarters from which Lewis runs the country’s largest U.S. Attorney’s Office, with a staff of over 600 and responsibility for prosecuting both federal and local crimes. As D.C.’s top prosecutor, Lewis oversees 340 assistant U.S. attorneys handling crimes that run the gamut from federal white-collar fraud cases, espionage, and terrorism, to local corruption, homicide, drug peddling, and auto theft. Her office also represents the United States and its departments and agencies in civil proceedings filed in federal court in the District of Columbia. Lewis’ role is unique, given her office’s dual prosecutorial function and her city’s singular stature.
When Lewis assumed her post in January 1998, nominated by President Clinton, Washington’s reputation was tarnished from years of runaway crime rates and political upheaval. Although the election of a new mayor, appointment of a new police chief, and other municipal broom-sweeping have raised public spirits, many Washingtonians still feel swamped in public corruption and street crime.
“It’s fair to say that the city over the years has had its share of problems,” says Lewis, a resident of D.C. since 1981. “As I came into office, however, I sensed that things were on the upswing. Right now, crime is at a 25-year low. But that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story, because there’s still significant fear of crime among local residents.”
Eliminating these fears is part of the U.S. attorney’s mission. Judiciary Square seems a very long way from the crime-plagued parts of Washington, so Lewis makes frequent forays into the neighborhoods to talk with residents in churches, libraries, and schools. “What I hear is their pent-up frustration and concern about crimes they feel adversely affect their neighborhoods” — be it the drug user on the corner or the destruction or neglect of property. “So while violent crime is always a law enforcement priority, we can’t neglect quality-of-life crimes at the other end of the spectrum.”
In addition to gathering local opinion, Lewis uses the meetings to “explain legal matters that are a mystery to people. It’s a chance for me to tell them about the criminal justice system and our role.” One question she often gets is, Why is it that after somebody’s arrested and charged with a crime, we see them right back on the street? In response, Lewis describes the legal requirements for detaining a person pending trial, and other issues about how cases are processed.
She adds: “Our conditions-of-release enforcement initiative — which includes the enforcement of court-imposed stay-away orders to keep pre-trial defendants out of the neighborhoods in which they are alleged to have committed the crimes — came about because of these public concerns over the ‘revolving door’ of justice.”
Lewis came to her new post from the Department of the Interior, where she first headed up the Division of General Law in the Solicitor’s Office and then was named inspector general by President Clinton in 1995. Previously, she had worked for seven years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, moving up to deputy chief of the civil division.
A native Virgin Islander, Lewis grew up in St. Thomas, where the racial harmony of her youth stands in sharp contrast to D.C.’s chronic tensions. Her parents both had civil service careers, in the U.S. Customs Service and Postal Service. Her godmother, a judge on a local court, first sparked Lewis’ interest in legal argument. After graduating from HLS, Lewis practiced law for several years at Steptoe & Johnson, then jumped at the chance to enter government service.
In her first months as U.S. attorney, Lewis created a civil rights unit focused on hate crimes and excessive police force cases. She created a gang prosecution and intelligence section dedicated to prosecuting gangs, called “crews” in D.C., whose impact is pernicious and spreading. “Many homicides result from fights over a corner,” says Lewis. Her gang and intelligence section stresses preventive measures and will engage in gang resistance training in the public schools. The section will also gather and disseminate the immense amount of information amassed through law enforcement investigations and prosecutions.
Lewis is also drastically expanding the pilot Community Prosecution (CP) Program, which assigns assistant U.S. attorneys to work directly with residents and local law enforcement working D.C.’s Fifth Police District. By the end of this year, more than 125 assistant U.S. attorneys will be involved in CP citywide. Lewis describes some of the program’s benefits: “By looking at cases in the context of a particular area or district,” rather than by category of crime, “we can screen and prosecute cases ‘smarter,’” she says. “And because we develop stronger partnerships with the police officers and the community and we get to know the bad actors well, we can link crimes and cases across districts more effectively.”
Lewis wants her office to be proactive in pushing for legislation, including a bail reform proposal currently before the City Council that would enable prosecutors to have pre-trial defendants detained in jail beyond the current 120-day limit “for good cause shown” in cases in which the court has found that the defendant is a risk of flight or danger to the community. She is also involved in the commission charged with establishing a determinant sentencing framework for the District, scheduled to go into effect in August 2000. “On the federal side we have mandatory minimums. On the local side, we’ve had a far more flexible structure, allowing great disparity in sentencing,” she explains.
“Tough penalties in my view are appropriate” to deal with serious situations, “but the criminal justice system must be prepared to deal with a broad spectrum of criminal activities. It is not in every case that incarceration is the answer. There is also a need for treatment and prevention.” She strongly supports the Justice Department’s Weed and Seed program, designed to weed out crime and seed social programs. On September 16, the U.S. attorney attended the grand opening of one such initiative, the Fulton House of Hope, a home that will offer drug treatment and job training to 22 women at a time. In its prior life Fulton was known as “Murder Hotel,” a drug dealers’ haven that often erupted in violence.
Lewis wants her office to encourage many more such transformations. The “role of prosecutors is evolving,” she says, “with a broader sense of mission. The primary role is still to go in and secure convictions. But there’s a growing sense among prosecutors that we have a much larger role to play in crime-prevention activities and in contributing to the overall goal of improving the quality of life.” With that in mind, she will continue to beef up her office’s community presence and meet face to face with the people she serves.