The task of approving a major overhaul of the city's outdated criminal code has been passed to the D.C. City Council by two congressional subcommittees whose chairman concluded they would not be able to enact a new code before the Congress adjourns in October.
After two years of work, the D.C. Law Revision Commission sent its proposal for a new basic criminal code to the Congress last March. Under the 1974 Home Rule Act, Congress has control over the D.C. Code until January, when the council would gain authority over the code.
In a letter to council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward l), the chairmen of the subcommittees that had considered the bill said that "given the heavy workload confronting both Houses of Congress" they were not certain that body could act on the proposal before adjournment.
The decision to turn responsibility for approval of the basic code over to the council means that next year - once the city gains control over the code - the council will begin an extensive series of public hearings on the proposal.
The law revision commission, a panel of 19 lawyers and community representatives, and both the House and Senate District subcommittees have already held lengthy hearings on the proposed new code.
Nevertheless, Clarke said in a July letter to Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.), "It is apparent that there is no substantial consensus within the community concerning what should be contained in such a code." Eagleton is chairman of a Senate subcommittee that handles D.C. legislative matters.
". . . additional public hearings would be helpful to increase community understanding, appreciation of sense of participation which is necessary for a criminal code to have the respect of the people who will be governed and protected by it," Clarke said in the letter.
During the course of the law revision commission's deliberations, it considered some 40 amendments submitted by the City Council and adopted "well over half" of those changes, said commission chairman Stephen I. Danzansky.
While the council will now have authority over the entire criminal code, the Congress maintains veto power over any changes in the law. Council member Clarke, in his letter to Eagleton, said he would "make no promises as to what the council will enact" in terms of the revisions already proposed by the commission.
Basically, the process of revising the turn of the century code had been broken down into two parts.
The law revision commission considered basic crimes against persons and property - such as murder and burglary - and updated definitions for those crimes. It also drew up new, stricter procedures for sentencing defendants in the city's court, which would cut down on a judge's sentencing discretion and establish penalties that come close to fixed prison terms for particular crimes. Last March, the commission sent its recommendations to the Congress and called its bill the D.C. Basic Criminal Code Act of 1978.
The revision of the remainder of the code, which includes so-called "crimes against society" such as prostitution, gambling and drug violations, was to be considered by the council, once it received legislative authority in January.
In March, commission members indicated they were anxious to have congressional approval of the basic code and expected that attempts would be made to expedite procedures so that Congress could act before adjournment.
The commission had considered the basic code a foundation upon which the remainder of the code could be modernized. But critics - particularly U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert - had called it a "piecemeal" approach to law making.
In a joint letter to Clarke on Aug. 4, Eagleton and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) said they agreed with those who "have suggested that Congress end its work in an orderly manner at this point and leave the task of writing the complete D.C. criminal code to the City Council." Mazzoli is chairman of the House District subcommitee on the judiciary, which had considered the District crime bill.