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D.C. mayor says she’ll veto bill overhauling city’s criminal code

Move could be symbolic, as bill passed unanimously and override of veto requires only a two-thirds majority

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is starting her third term. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Tuesday announced that she would veto an overhaul of the city’s criminal code that the D.C. Council unanimously approved in November.

“I expect to be sending the council members a letter with my concerns, accompanied by my veto,” Bowser said at a news conference Tuesday.

Both Bowser’s office and law enforcement leaders had previously expressed objections over certain aspects of the legislation — though Bowser had not said whether she would veto the bill.

The move, though, might be a symbolic one. The bill passed with unanimous support, and the council needs just a two-thirds majority to override the veto — which one council member said it would do. Two of the 13 members are new to the body and did not vote on the legislation last year.

D.C. Council is rewriting the criminal code. Not everyone is happy.

If it becomes law, the bill would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences, allow for jury trials in almost all misdemeanor cases, and reduce the maximum penalties for offenses such as burglaries, carjackings and robberies. The law would not take effect for three years, giving the courts, police and other groups time to prepare for implementation, officials have said.

At the news conference, Bowser said that a law that reduces penalties sends the wrong message and that she was concerned about overburdening the court system.

“I think it’s the wrong way to go. We’re also very concerned that the courts have the resources to keep up with the law,” Bowser said. “We’re just now seeing the courts really get going in full force post-pandemic, and what this law would suggest is that the number of trials would skyrocket. We have concerns about all of that.”

Defenders of the legislation have said the lower maximum penalties more closely match terms that are actually being imposed. Some criticized the mayor on Tuesday for her veto stance.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chaired the public safety committee when the bill was passed, said in a statement that the bill was “the product of a 16-year-long effort with hard-fought compromise and consensus among the key agencies who administer our criminal justice system.”

“A veto sends a message to keep the status quo — one that has clearly shown it doesn’t keep us safe — and it is not the right decision for the moment we face,” he said. “District residents trust their leaders to be engaged, work together, and make responsible decisions. After lengthy discussions, serious compromises, and two unanimous votes by the Council to pass this legislation, residents can trust the Council will do the right thing and override a veto to put the modernized law in place.”

Paul Butler, a member of the Code Revision Commission Advisory Board and law professor at Georgetown, said the bill “would help cure some of D.C.’s vast racial inequities and make every community in our city safer.”

“Signing this bill would demonstrate the mayor’s professed commitment to making Black Lives Matter is beyond painting a slogan on 16th Street,” he said.

Separately Tuesday, at the D.C. Council’s first organizational meeting of the new two-year council period, members voted to approve committee assignments that were proposed in December by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). The council also welcomed two new members, Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) and Matthew Frumin (D-Ward 3), who were officially sworn in on Monday.

Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), previously the health committee chair, has vehemently objected to a proposed change from Mendelson that shrinks Gray’s oversight to a more narrow committee focused on hospitals and “health equity.”

Mendelson, who named Christina Henderson (I-At Large) health committee chair, has cited Gray’s own health challenges as the reason for the change, and has said repeatedly that the move reflects the view of other members. But Gray has called the action a potential violation of the city’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on protected traits.

Gray on Tuesday unsuccessfully pitched amendments to the council’s rules. One amendment, which would have explicitly stated that the council is subject to D.C.’s Human Rights Act, was defeated 10-3. Seeking a return to the status quo, Gray also introduced an amendment to reestablish a committee on education. A subsequent amendment would have named Henderson as its chair while reassigning Gray to lead the health committee.

But the proposal to re-create the education committee was defeated 11-2, with Gray and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) as the only votes in favor.

“We accept the process by which Mendelson’s proposal passed, but reject the premise. Concern for my health is appreciated; discrimination based on health is unconscionable,” Gray said in a statement after the vote. “My staff and I will now consider all options.”