The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Council overrides mayor’s veto of controversial new criminal code

Law enforcement leaders had expressed concern about the bill, which reduces some maximum sentences and allows for jury trials in nearly all misdemeanor cases

D.C. Council member Charles Allen, right, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, at a 2020 news conference. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted to override Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) veto of a major overhaul of the city’s criminal code, which city lawmakers had unanimously approved in November despite concerns from court and law enforcement leaders.

Lawmakers voted 12-1 to override Bowser’s veto of the bill, with Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) breaking from the rest of the council. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chaired the public safety committee when the legislation passed, said lawmakers “stand at the finish line of a 16-year process that would make significant improvements and modernize an outdated criminal code from another era.”

“I am frustrated. This veto should not have happened,” Allen said. “A veto is a defense of the status quo, and I am grateful this council is forward-looking.”

The bill would, among other things, 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. Law enforcement leaders had expressed concern that it could burden an already stretched court system and would send the wrong message to residents at a time when the city is struggling with gun violence.

“This bill does not make us safer,” Bowser wrote in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), announcing her veto.

Lawmakers shot back Tuesday that the bill was a necessary reform of the city’s outdated criminal code, and they took direct aim at the mayor’s criticism, which they said could be used as fodder for members of Congress who can block city legislation. Republicans in the House have already threatened to target the measure. But resolutions disapproving D.C. legislation must pass both chambers and be signed by the president. Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate.

“It is irresponsible for the mayor to have characterized this as ‘This bill does not make us safer,’” Mendelson said at Tuesday’s meeting. “That is irresponsible rhetoric, and it plays into folks like the Freedom Caucus in Congress who are going to use the mayor’s veto and her rhetoric against us when this bill goes up towards Congress.”

Allen and Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), the new public safety chair, said in a joint statement beforehand that the criminal code was “more equitable and just” but that they were open to consideration of further amendments before it was fully implemented. Officials who support the code revisions have stressed that the law would not take effect for three years to give police, courts and other groups time to prepare.

“There is simply too much good in this bill to abandon all of that work, and without any backup plan from the mayor,” Pinto said Tuesday.

Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D- Ward 1) called the mayor’s veto a “distraction,” given that the council would override it.

“This is political theater to create a perpetual scapegoat whenever there are issues in the future,” Nadeau said. “Do not believe the hype. The council is not tying the hands of our law enforcement officials or making crime worse.”

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

Bowser wrote in her letter to Mendelson that while there was “consensus agreement” on 95 percent of the bill, she opposed particular provisions lowering maximum sentences and allowing for more jury trials. She said the bill would weaken “already lenient sentencing for gun possession” by reducing the maximum penalties for carrying a pistol without a license and being a felon in possession of a gun.

Gregg Pemberton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said in a statement that the law, once enacted, would lead to “violent crime rates exploding more than they already have.”

“Every resident should be outraged that the Council has weakened the criminal justice system in a way that makes every neighborhood less safe,” Pemberton said. “Their actions today are shameful.”

Supporters of the bill have countered that the reductions in maximum penalties are in line with what judges are actually imposing.

“This isn’t some huge, mass decarceration measure,” said Patrice Sulton, founder and executive director of the DC Justice Lab. “It’s making the code clear, consistent, and constitutionally sound.”

In addition to the veto override, the council on Tuesday unanimously approved an emergency bill to set a May 1 implementation date for Initiative 82, the ballot measure that will gradually increase minimum pay for servers and other tipped workers from $5.35 per hour to the city’s full minimum wage, which is $16.50. Tipped workers had expected to receive their first pay increase to $6 per hour this month.

But Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said Tuesday that because the measure unexpectedly ended up on November’s ballot instead of the June primary, the city needed more time to implement the law. (The D.C. Board of Elections in the spring took weeks to determine whether backers had collected enough valid signatures, bumping it to the general election and frustrating the measure’s proponents.)

Bonds said the delays also extended the time Congress has to review the measure — through April — making May ideal for when it becomes law.

“This will mitigate confusion and provide business with sufficient notice for the accurate implementation of the law,” Bonds added. She said the delay will not affect the remainder of the law’s pay increase schedule: The next bump, to $8 per hour, is slated for July and will be implemented as planned.

Meagan Flynn contributed to this report. This developing story has been updated.