Senate Vote Ends Chances for DC Criminal Code Update

March 9, 2023 by Tom Ramstack
Senate Vote Ends Chances for DC Criminal Code Update
U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to strike down a proposed Washington, D.C., criminal reform bill.

The senators, like members of the House days earlier, said it is too soft on crime. They also said it calls into question the District of Columbia’s competence at self-governance as it pushes for statehood.

The Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 the D.C. City Council approved in November would eliminate most mandatory prison sentences, expand jury trial requirements for misdemeanors and reduce penalties for some violent offenses, such as carjackings.

Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the bill, largely out of concern for reduced sentences for the kind of gun crimes that have risen 40% since 2017. The city council voted to override her veto in January.

Unlike the states, Congress is empowered under the Constitution to oversee the administration of local government in Washington. It includes authority to veto local legislation, which Congress did for the first time in more than 30 years by the 81-14-1 vote against the criminal reform bill.

Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., a cosponsor of the resolution to veto the bill, said on the Senate floor Wednesday the bill would “send the wrong message that D.C. is not serious about fighting crime.”

He added that it serves as an example of why congressional authority over local issues is appropriate.

President Joe Biden said he would sign the resolution disapproving of the revised criminal code.

“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden tweeted.

After the House voted it down last week and while it was headed for a Senate defeat this week, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson notified Senate leaders he was withdrawing the legislation.

The Senate went ahead with the vote in an apparent attempt to show why lawmakers want to continue their oversight of the District of Columbia.

 “No matter how hard they try, the council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous, soft-on-crime bill,” Hagerty said shortly before the vote. 

The reform bill was supposed to update local criminal laws in the nation’s capital for the first time in 122 years.

Mendelson said reforms to the D.C. criminal code still are coming but only after the council and its legal advisors make changes that are acceptable to Congress.

Some of his colleagues in the city government were harsh in their criticisms of the federal government.

Bowser said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that she did not like parts of the criminal code revision but liked the congressional oversight even less.

“That’s a slippery slope, again, that we endure, not just with bills like this,” Bowser said.

D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb, also a Democrat, said in a tweet, “Any effort to overturn D.C. laws degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern — a right that almost every other American has.”

The reform proposal is a result of 16 years of work to update the criminal code.

Critics said the current version uses sometimes contradictory or vague language that leaves judges and attorneys to make best guesses about how to apply it.

In one example, the law does not clearly define simple assault despite the fact it is one of the most commonly prosecuted crimes in the District of Columbia. In another example, the law imposes sentences that could be twice as long for defendants who threaten to damage someone’s property compared with people who actually do the damage.

One of the most controversial parts of the reform bill was the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for every crime except first-degree murder. 

Currently, mandatory minimums can be applied to gun crimes that are blamed for Washington’s high rate of deadly violence.

Other reforms would grant criminal defendants broader access to early release programs instead of jail time.

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