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  • Elena Pomponio

New Washington D.C. criminal code halted at the finish line

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

D.C.’s proposed new criminal code stood strong following Mayor Muriel Bowser’s attempted veto of the bill that would impose a rewrite to D.C.’s outdated criminal system. Proponents of the new criminal code said the D.C. Council “stood up for a more just society” when it overrode Bowser’s veto. However, the unsuccessful veto was not the last of the obstacles D.C. faced in its effort to enact reforms to the criminal legal system.

Congress also introduced legislation to block reforms to the D.C. criminal code. The House passed H.J. Res. 26—Disapproving the Action of the District of Columbia Council in Approving the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022. Sen. Bill Haggerty (R-TN) followed suit by introducing a companion resolution of disapproval in the Senate.

But why did D.C. face so much backlash for the criminal code rewrite? Along with rewriting some outdated language and clarifying specific, poorly defined criminal penalties, the rewrite would have eliminated most mandatory sentences and reduced the maximum penalties for offenses like burglaries, carjacking and robberies. Opponents of the rewrite argued that the bill was poorly timed, given the increase in crime in the District. This past year, Metropolitan Police Department reported seeing more than one carjacking per day on average. These numbers concerned opponents of the criminal code rewrite like Haggerty, who specifically noted increased carjackings in a press conference to gain support for his resolution of disapproval.

Additionally, Bowser, Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, U.S. Attorney for the District Matthew Graves and other officials stated concerns with a provision of the bill that would have allowed jury trials in more misdemeanor crimes. Opponents of the rewrite argued that these changes would have caused an influx of cases in the courts when the courts are already stretched thin.

On the contrary, proponents of the new criminal code argued that the reforms would have changed less than we think in some ways. Proponents noted that the legislation would have allowed the criminal code to align more closely with specific lower maximum penalties that judges typically impose. For example, the current maximum sentence for carjackings is 40 years. The new criminal code would have lowered this to 24 years; however, nearly all of D.C.’s convictions of armed carjacking already result in an average of 15.5 years. Proponents, such as the D.C. Attorney General, also fired back at critics by pointing out that the new criminal code would have increased maximum sentences for many crimes, such as armed robbery.

In the House, 31 Democrats joined the GOP-led effort. One Democrat supporting the bill, Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN), was attacked in the elevator of her apartment building in Northeast, D.C., just hours before the vote.

In February 2023, the Biden Administration expressed its opposition to H.J. Res. 26 in a statement that also opposed another introduced regulation that would allow noncitizen residents to vote in D.C. local elections. The Administration said, “Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs.”

However, a month later, in March, President Biden reined in the Administration’s early statement of opposition by announcing that he would not veto Congress’s measure to block the D.C. criminal code and would sign the legislation should the Senate vote to overturn the crime bill. Biden tweeted that he does support D.C. Statehood; however, he does not support some of the changes the D.C. Council put forward in the bill, “such as lowering penalties for carjackings.”

Following Biden’s later statements, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson delivered a letter to Congress that confirmed the city would withdraw its criminal code revisions and send Congress a revised version at a later time. However, Senate leadership noted that Congress’s authority to have the final say over D.C.’s laws does not allow the Council to withdraw its legislation. Consequently, on March 8, 2023, the Senate voted to overturn D.C.’s criminal code bill. This is the first time in more than 30 years that Congress voted to overturn local D.C. legislation.

If all went according to plan, the new criminal code would have taken effect in October 2025. However, it appears the criminal code rewrite is back to the drawing board for now.


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