DemDaily: Walking The Line on DC Crime

March 7, 2023

President Joe Biden, a longtime advocate of self-rule for the District of Columbia (DC), surprised members of his own party by announcing he would side with Republicans and moderates in rejecting a proposed update to DC's criminal code.

The move was met with immediate backlash from supporters of DC statehood, with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) saying, “Today has been a sad day for...DC residents’ right to self-governance, which President Biden himself highlighted in his administration’s Statement of Administration Policy issued mere weeks ago.”

The battle over control of the District of Columbia has been raging since DC was established as the nation's capital and a federal district under the direct jurisdiction of the United States Congress in 1801, and when residents were stripped of their voting representation in Congress and the right to fully participate in their own democracy through home rule.

The proposal by the DC Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC), which was formed in 2016, came after a sixteen-year review of the city's antiquated criminal code which had not been updated in more than 120 years. The CCRC advisory board includes the US Attorney for DC, Public Defender Service, DC Attorney General, two law professors appointed by the DC Council, and the Mayor's office.

The Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 (RCCA) redefines offenses and adjusts penalties, in some cases decreasing maximum allowable sentences and in other cases adding new crimes and possible sanctions that do not exist in the current code, which dates back to 1901. It also expands the right to a jury trial for people charged with misdemeanor offenses, eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for all offenses except first-degree murder, and offers more people serving time in prison the opportunity to petition a judge for early release.

Norton said the recommendations were "based on experience. And that should be left to the District of Columbia, which has lived this experience."

The Detractors
Although the council voted unanimously to pass the bill in November, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the bill in January, saying that while she agreed with 95% of the overhaul, decreasing maximum possible penalties for certain offenses “sends the wrong message” during a period when DC has seen an uptick in gun violence and youth homicides. She also expressed concern that the provision expanding jury trial rights would swamp the courts.

A Washington Post Editorial Board supported Bowser's veto, warning DC "could become a more dangerous city" if the criminal code was adopted -- citing the decreased punishment "for violent crimes such as carjackings, home invasion burglaries, robberies and even homicides."

The City Council voted to override Bowser’s veto 12-to-1, with some members calling the veto "political theater," noting that since the overhaul does not take effect until late 2025, there is still time to review and amend proposed sentences.

With federal oversight, the House and Senate can overturn legislation passed by the DC City Council within a 60-day review period.

On February 9, the new Republican-controlled US House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution to reject the new criminal code. The House also voted in favor of a resolution disapproving a DC bill that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.

At the time Biden stated that he opposed the criminal code disapproval resolution, saying that "Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs."

However, in a startling about-face last Thursday, Biden announced that he would reject the DC Council's changes to its criminal code and sign the disapproval resolution if passed by US Senate. It would be the first time that Congress blocked a DC law in over three decades.

The Larger Picture
Biden's reversal comes as crime has emerged as a major issue nationally, featured prominently in recent rhetoric by potential Republican presidential contenders who are attempting to paint Democrats as weak on law-and-order issues.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who ran on police reform four years ago, was resoundingly defeated for reelection two weeks ago amid criticism of her handling of the rise of crime in the country's third-largest city -- a phenomenon prevalent in other local city elections.

Although the US House vote in favor of the disapproval resolution was driven by the GOP, 31 moderate Democrats joined in voting with them, the fear of being considered lenient on criminals hovering over some going into tough reelection campaigns.

“I can only conclude that the Republican leadership believes D.C. residents, the majority of whom are Black and Brown, are unworthy or incapable of governing themselves.” -- Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

While Biden's decision may have been based on one political calculous, some consider it a political betrayal and a direct contradiction of his support for the city to dictate its own destiny.

Although Bowser opposed aspects of the RCCA, she said she "will never say that we want Congress meddling in the affairs of the District of Columbia."

With the anticipated passage of the disapproval resolution by the Senate, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson requested on Monday to withdraw the criminal reform legislation from congressional review.

Republicans still expect a vote to move forward next week, however, as, according to one leadership aide, “the Senate Republican privileged motion will be acting on the House disapproval resolution, rather than the DC Council’s transmission to the Senate."

The public vote will, no doubt, provide soundbites for Senators of both parties as they reject the Act in support of the new war on crime.

DemList will keep you informed.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: DCist, Washington Post, CNN, White House, NBC, NPR

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