The District of Columbia’s 120-year-old criminal code is finally being rewritten. D.C.’s current criminal code dates back to 1901, the original version that Congress codified. The proposed bill, B24-0416, is called the “Revised Criminal Code Act of 2021.” The D.C. Council’s (“Council”) rewritten version of the code will define crimes better, clarify penalties and terms within the code, and repeal outdated offenses.
The current D.C. criminal code “is a patchwork of laws” written at various times by different legislative bodies. Provisions have rarely, if ever, been updated to use contemporary language. Furthermore, the current criminal code frequently leaves important terms undefined, in addition to containing unspecified requisite culpable mental states. The current code also haphazardly sets penalties, resulting in “sentences that are disproportionate to the offense at issue or the harm caused.” D.C.’s existing criminal code has therefore become antiquated and “does not reflect current community sentiment and norms.”
Additionally, in 2000, a group of law school professors ranked D.C.’s existing criminal code as one of the worst criminal codes in the country. Overall, it was ranked forty-fifth of the fifty-two jurisdictions, which included all fifty states, D.C., and the federal criminal code. The professors considered a number of factors when reaching their decision, including objective factors such as clarity, consistency, and completeness. Furthermore, according to these professors, one way in which D.C.’s current criminal code fails is regarding “provid[ing] notice to the public of the conduct it defines as criminal” because it does “not contain general definition sections and rarely, if ever, contain[s] definitions within specific sections.”
The D.C. Criminal Code Revision Committee (“CCRC”) spearheaded the push for reviewing and revising the current D.C. criminal code. The CCRC was initially established in 2006 and later became an independent agency. As an independent agency, it was required to submit recommendations regarding how to modernize D.C.’s criminal code “to improve its clarity, consistency, completeness, and proportionality.”
According to the executive director of the CCRC, Richard Schmechel, the CCRC’s work included more than just redesigning an occasional poorly-drafted offense in the current criminal code; instead, it involved a rewriting of the code so that the system is “clearer, more fair, more proportionate.” Furthermore, according to Casey Anderson of the Council on Court Excellence, the revision builds on the efforts to “address disparate impacts of the criminal justice system.”
The CCRC submitted a 325-page bill in October 2021 with recommendations for how to rewrite and modernize almost all aspects of D.C.’s criminal code. These recommendations include restoring the right to a jury trial for most misdemeanors, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, and allowing anyone who has served at least fifteen years in prison to petition for early release. The CCRC also incorporated recommendations to repeal outdated laws, including one that prohibits playing ball games, like bandy, in the street. Additionally, the CCRC aimed to remove certain common law offenses from the criminal code; one such offense—outlawing “common scolds”—dates back to the 1800s and refers to a “troublesome woman who disturbs the peace.”
The proposed bill also improves the current D.C. criminal code’s poor definitions of crimes. Having “consistent, clearly articulated definitions” was so important that it was even codified in the D.C. Code as one of the “Duties of the Criminal Code Reform Commission” under § 3-152(a)(2). The updated definitions clarify how and what constitutes a riot. They also include better definitions for crimes like assault, robbery, and kidnapping. Given that assault is the most charged offense annually in D.C., an update to this definition will be particularly important for the updated criminal code.
The CCRC developed its recommendations over a span of fifteen years and unanimously approved them earlier this year. There will be multiple hearings about the CCRC’s proposed bill. The first one was held on November 4, 2021 over Zoom and was also broadcast on Councilmember Allen’s Facebook page. The second and third hearings are already scheduled and will be held on Dec. 2, 2021 and Dec. 16, 2021, respectively.