The D.C. Council unanimously approved a major overhaul of the city’s criminal code Tuesday, despite objections from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and law enforcement leaders over certain aspects of the legislation.
The bill passed unanimously through the council in a first vote and received unanimous support in the five-member judiciary and public safety committee. Tuesday’s second and final vote was somewhat more contentious, with a near hour-long debate largely centered on an amendment over gun crimes. But the amendment was ultimately rejected, and the bill was passed unanimously.
Judiciary and public safety officials had previously expressed some reservations. Anita Josey-Herring, the chief judge in D.C. Superior Court, said in a letter to Bowser on Monday that the revised criminal code’s guarantee of a jury trial in more cases would have an “extensive” impact on D.C. courts. Josey-Herring said the Superior Court is already operating with 14 judicial vacancies, with an additional six expected by the end of 2023.
“Filling these judicial vacancies is vital to the fair and timely administration of justice for the public we serve,” Josey-Herring said. “Given the dire need to have these judicial vacancies filled, it is important to emphasize the critical impact that increasing the workload will have on court operations, and the fair and timely administration of justice.”
Bowser said in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) that she opposed the proposal to weaken what she termed “already lenient sentencing for gun possession” by reducing the current penalties for carrying a pistol without a license and being a felon in possession of a gun.
The debate Tuesday focused on an amendment proposed by council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) that would have raised the maximum sentences for carrying a dangerous weapon and unauthorized possession of a firearm. Pinto’s amendment would have treated the violations as Class 8 felonies, which carry a maximum possible sentence of four years in prison; the legislation classifies those crimes as Class 9 felonies, which carry a maximum possible sentence of two years in prison.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the council should send a strong message, given the state of crime in the city. “Everybody knows we are awash in guns and gun violence. We have residents being shot almost every day, including children,” she said. “We have shootouts in the street. And this is not a time, I don’t think, to lessen penalties for gun possession.”
But the amendment did not find broad support. Three members — Pinto, Cheh and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) — voted for it. Ten voted against. Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said that the amendment was not based on any data or evidence that it would improve safety and that only a tiny percentage of defendants sentenced for carrying a dangerous weapon or unauthorized possession of a firearm get more than two years.
“For supporters of this amendment, I hear you saying we need to raise penalties to meet this moment, to send a message. But I ask you to show your work,” Allen said. “At some point, this council needs to reckon with what it means to have one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the free world and yet endure this kind of violence.”
Jinwoo Charles Park, executive director of the D.C. Criminal Code Reform Commission, said in a letter to the council Monday that the bill should not be amended to increase the penalty classifications. Doing so, he said, would exacerbate racial disparities in incarceration.
“Increases in the average sentence for these offenses would have a disproportionate effect on African American defendants,” Park said. “Although it is likely that only a small percentage of defendants would be sentenced to the maximum penalties, changing the penalty classifications could result in an increase in the average sentence for these offenses.”
The bill overhauling the code has drawn strong support from some criminal justice reform advocates, who said they are eager to see Bowser sign it into law.
Patrice Sulton, executive director of the D.C. Justice Lab, said in an interview Monday that the law modernizes the District’s criminal code and makes it clearer for residents.
“People who want punishment as a mechanism of accountability would embrace this measure that makes obvious what is and is not a crime,” Sulton said. “We need the elements to be obvious to police, prosecutors, judges, courts, defense attorneys and everybody who’s living in the District under these laws.”
Sulton, who served as the senior attorney adviser of the Criminal Code Reform Commission, said that even though the U.S. attorney’s office and Public Defender Service disagree on some aspects of the bill, she believes all parties want to see a revamped criminal code.
“Everybody agrees that this was the time to do this and that the council should take it under consideration and take action,” Sulton said. “I don’t think there’s any real desire from council members to just leave our criminal code in the mess that it’s in now.”