Historically, federal prosecutors have served as one of the most powerful tools to curtail violent crime. They boast strong investigative capabilities and can seek heavy sentences for the worst offenders. But so far, the Biden administration has failed to appoint new U.S. attorneys in the majority of districts around the country—and at a time when homicides and nonfatal shootings are rising at a record clip.
The various U.S. attorneys across the country traditionally have been able to step into the breach to control violent crime, either by helping active local prosecutors or by supplanting less aggressive local prosecutors. Federal prosecutors have enormous investigative resources: they can collaborate with the FBI, DEA, ATF, and other federal agencies to engage in detailed surveillance and undercover investigations of violent organizations and individuals. They can impose steep sentences on offenders, sending them to prisons far away from their home turf and encouraging cooperation from defendants who rank lower in a given gang or drug organization. During the 1990s, federal prosecutors undertook programs such as Operation Ceasefire in Boston and Project Exile in Richmond, which targeted the small percentage of truly violent offenders in their cities and yielded outstanding results.
With shootings on the rise, it would seem a good time for federal prosecutors to swing back into action. That hasn’t happened. U.S. Attorneys’ Offices cover 94 districts, and as is traditional, the Biden administration required the sitting attorneys to resign shortly after taking office. But over a year later, the president has nominated only 43 new U.S. attorneys. The offices that have no confirmed leader instead rely on a patchwork of interim and acting prosecutors.
The lack of permanent leadership is a problem, but the distribution of Biden’s appointments is particularly concerning. Consider a list of cities that have both elected progressive-leaning prosecutors and have suffered from increases in violence and disorder: Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Portland, Austin, Milwaukee, and San Francisco. The administration has yet to appoint a U.S. attorney for any of these places.
This may be a matter of distraction and inertia. The administration has had to attend to political battles within the Democratic Party, the lack of legislative support for its Build Back Better agenda, Covid-19, inflation, foreign policy crises, and the looming midterm elections. It may also be a matter of politics: despite the obvious need to restore order in American cities, Biden did not run on a law-and-order platform. If anything, his appointments to senior leadership positions recall Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, where the inclination to protect defendants often outweighed the desire to protect victims through vigorous prosecutions.
In his State of the Union address, though, Biden dismayed some progressive supporters by exhorting the country to “fund the police.” If he’s serious about restoring order in American cities, he can make an immediate impact by appointing strong and experienced U.S. attorneys and instructing them to crack down on violent crime.