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Bowser proposes changes to D.C. criminal code bill as congressional action nears

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Monday announced a bill to amend several aspects of the criminal code revision approved by the D.C. Council in November — changes she says will address her concerns about the overhaul as congressional lawmakers threaten to defeat the revised code altogether.

While Bowser (D) has said she agrees with “95 percent” of the overhaul to the city’s century-old criminal code, she has repeatedly raised concerns over facets of the revisions that would allow for jury trials in almost all misdemeanor cases and reduce maximum penalties for certain offenses. While proponents say the new penalties better align with sentences judges hand down for those crimes, Bowser and some local judicial and law enforcement officials said the changes send the wrong message about public safety and could place too heavy a burden on the courts in 2025, when the jury trial expansion would begin.

Bowser said Monday that her proposed amendments would eliminate the expansion of jury trials as well as a provision that expands the Second Look Act — a law that allows people convicted of crimes as youths to petition the court for resentencing after 15 years — to people of all ages, so that these changes can receive “stand-alone hearings.” Bowser also said her tweaks would delay implementation of the new code until 2027, rather than 2025, and restore maximum penalties that had been reduced for crimes like burglaries, carjackings and robberies.

“While no one believes that penalties alone will solve crime and violence right now, we must be very intentional about the messages that we are sending to our community, including prosecutors and judges,” Bowser said. “People, we know, are tired of violence and right now our focus must be on victims and preventing more people from becoming victims.”

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

Bowser last month vetoed the criminal code overhaul after it had passed unanimously in the council, though the legislature later voted 12-1 to override her. Some members of the council previously expressed qualms over the mayor’s criticism, which they said could be used as ammunition for Republican members of Congress who are seeking to block this and another, unrelated D.C. bill from becoming law with two disapproval resolutions.

On Monday, the Democratic whip urged House Democrats to vote against both disapproval resolutions, and on Sunday, all 13 members of the D.C. Council sent a letter to congressional House leadership urging them to reject the resolutions. Congressional Republicans who have spoken out against the revision say generally that it would embolden criminals and worsen crime in the city, rarely going into specifics. Because of a provision in the Constitution, Congress has the final say on D.C. legislation, though a disapproval resolution has not succeeded in about three decades.

“Nearly all House Democrats have voted in the past in support of D.C.’s right for self-governance, and these bills further undercut the District’s autonomy and ability to legislate on behalf of the constituents that elected them,” the message read.

The Biden administration on Monday afternoon said in a statement that it opposed the two disapproval resolutions.

The resolutions “are both clear examples of how the District continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood,” the statement said. “While we work towards making Washington, D.C. the 51st state of our Union, Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its local affairs.”

In their letter addressed to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the D.C. Council said that “Any changes or amendments to the District’s local laws should be done by the elected representatives of the District of Columbia.”

The lawmakers continued: “We ask you to stand up against any attempts to undermine the autonomy Congress has granted the District and instead stand up for the democratic rights of District residents.”

Bowser, who has faced repeated questions about her stance on the disapproval resolutions pertaining to the criminal code because of her stated issues with the measure, said Friday that lawmakers on the Hill should stay out of city affairs and that any changes should take place through the city’s own legislative process — though she acknowledged there were members of Congress who have “expressed similar concerns” about the overhaul.

Bowser says Congress shouldn’t interfere as it weighs nixing two D.C. bills

Other D.C. lawmakers have spoken more forcefully against congressional opposition to the code changes.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he sent a separate letter to Jeffries to clear up potential misunderstandings about the code, writing that there was “no evidence” to support the claim that the bill will make the city “more dangerous” — echoing the sentiment Bowser has previously argued — while reiterating that the bill brings criminal penalties more in line with the sentencing ranges “actually being imposed by judges over the past decade,” rather than simply reducing penalties for violent offenses.

Mendelson, who on Monday said he was confident no House lawmakers had actually read the revised code, told reporters that he talked to Bowser about signing on to his letter to Jeffries but that she “wanted to do her own messaging.” He added that the mayor was “very clear that she does not support the House efforts.”

He did not comment on whether he agreed with Bowser’s proposed changes, adding that it’s “not relevant to what Republicans will do this week.” If the disapproval resolutions are successful and the code revision is ultimately defeated in Congress, he said: “We start over.”

Patrice Sulton, the founder and executive director of the DC Justice Lab who served as the senior attorney adviser of the Criminal Code Reform Commission, expressed pessimism Monday at the code revision’s chances with Congress, but also said the D.C. Council should not make changes based on how critics have characterized the code.

“Giving into fearmongering is not a step that we should take,” she added.

Council members Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (I-At Large) also released statements Monday decrying potential Republican interference while noting that the revisions are crucial to modernizing and bringing equity to the city’s criminal justice system.

“My immediate concern is preventing Congress from unjustly and undemocratically overturning the duly enacted legislation of the District of Columbia,” Pinto, who chairs the council’s judiciary and public safety committee, said in a statement. “As I have said from the beginning, I will continue working with the Mayor to strengthen the legislation and give a full hearing to any proposed legislation regarding the criminal code that is presented to the committee.”

Civil rights and criminal justice reform organizations released a joint statement on Monday opposing efforts to obstruct the code revision.

“Opponents of the [criminal code revision] are spreading misinformation and impeding on Washingtonians’ right to govern themselves — all to score political points at the expense of smart policy,” said Liz Komar, sentencing reform counsel of the Sentencing Project.

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said D.C.'s residents and elected officials should decide their own laws.

“The federal government should not interfere with long-awaited progress in the District of Columbia,” Ring said.

Karina Elwood contributed to this report.