As dozens of House Republicans gathered in the Capitol building’s Statuary Hall on Friday to celebrate Congress blocking D.C.’s revised criminal code, they made one thing clear: D.C. should buckle up.
In framing the effort to block D.C.’s once-in-a-century overhaul of its criminal sentencing laws as part of a national goal, Republicans indicated that they would press harder on the gas to use D.C. to make broader political points — something they have done for years but accomplished with unprecedented bipartisan success this week. Dozens of Senate Democrats joined Republicans in voting to disapprove of the city’s revised criminal code, a resolution that President Biden is expected to sign.
On Friday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Republicans viewed the effort to go after D.C.’s crime legislation as sending a message to the city — and the entire nation.
“We are making history,” McCarthy said during the bill enrollment ceremony. “What today really means is we’re sending a message to every city, every county, every state that no longer will Washington be soft on crime. No longer are we defunding the police. No longer are we softening sentences.”
The bipartisan rebuke has left city leaders and criminal justice advocates questioning whether they should attempt to rewrite the criminal code bill to appease concerns that critics raised — or if the political landscape Republicans have created makes any attempt futile.
Before city officials could even go back to the drawing board, House Republicans on Thursday launched a new effort to block the city’s major police accountability legislation, seemingly forcing the city to play constant defense of its crime and policing bills. Congress has the final say on the city’s laws, thanks to a provision in the Constitution.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the new effort against the policing bill made it clear that Republican targeting of D.C. would not abate, making it difficult to assess what the city should do with its criminal code.
The Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 faced repeated attacks from Republicans for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for almost all crimes and reducing statutory maximum sentences for certain violent crimes, though the code also included less-discussed new penalty enhancements and allowed “stacking” of charges to increase sentences. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had unsuccessfully vetoed the legislation over concerns about reducing certain maximum sentences and burdening a strapped court system with other changes such as restoring the right to misdemeanor trials.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Bowser said the mayor believes “all three branches of government” and the community need to work together to “get this right.”
“Throughout this process, including with the amendments she sent to the Council last month, the Mayor has made clear the changes that should be made to the criminal code legislation,” the spokeswoman said, adding that Bowser also plans to send a package of “Safer, Stronger D.C.” legislation to address public safety concerns. She did not elaborate on the details of that proposal.
Jinwoo Park, the executive director of D.C’s Criminal Code Reform Commission who helped write the legislation, remains hopeful that there is a path forward for at least some version of the updated code to make it through Congress. But he’s not sure what that would look like given the bipartisan attacks that he viewed as mischaracterizing its substance.
“A lot of the critiques that I saw at the congressional level were so detached from the truth of the bill,” he said. “Even if we were to address one line of criticism, who’s to say they wouldn’t go find something else?”
The roughly 275-page criminal code bill that was before Congress was a years-long effort with input and support from both prosecutors and public defenders. It comprehensively updates most of D.C.’s criminal code for the first time in more than 120 years, mostly modernizing language and restructuring sentencing to align with codes across the country.
Going back to the drawing board would take a lot of resources, Park said, noting that this was an “immensely time-consuming project.” But he still hopes there is a way to put forward a version of the bill with “the same basic guts, the same basic infrastructure, improvement for clarity.”
“They’re all things that everyone seems to agree is overdue,” he said. “I think that’s doable. I just don’t know when, unfortunately.”
Mendelson said he planned to sit down with council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who chairs the judiciary and public safety committee, to think on several key questions: “Do we think the prospects of another bill in the next two years will be better? How? What would we do differently to improve the prospects?”
To all those questions, he said, for now, “I don’t know.”
“I would hope that there’s some leadership in Congress that recognizes that reforming a 120-year-old code is necessary,” Mendelson said. But he questioned whether Republican politicians would make a good-faith study of any changes the council could make to the bill, fearing they would continue to focus on tough-on-crime campaign messaging. “If we send another bill up, how do we make sure that the leadership will protect the District from campaign demagoguery?” he said.
In an interview after the ceremony, Clyde said he was not exactly sure what type of revisions House Republicans would accept if D.C. brought forth a new criminal code.
“I don’t know that it needs reform right now — you know, I don’t know that it does or doesn’t,” Clyde said of the current code. “But it certainly doesn’t need that,” he said, referring to the revised version that Congress rejected.
He said a change he would accept was if D.C. enacted a law to allow people to carry guns without a license, known as constitutional carry, arguing that more people could access guns for self-defense. That policy would be unlikely to be taken up by the deep-blue city council.
In his speech during the ceremony, Clyde thanked a D.C. resident who contacted him with concerns about the revised criminal code and motivated him to intervene: Denise Krepp, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives in Hill East. Krepp, a Democrat, said in an interview that she was compelled to write to Clyde over her concerns about how rape was handled under the revised code. The maximum penalty for first-degree sexual assault was reduced from life in prison without parole to 24 years, plus enhancements. Krepp said she believed convicted rapists should be serving lengthy sentences without an opportunity for early release.
“It kills me because I support D.C. statehood,” she said of her decision to involve Clyde in blocking the revised criminal code. “But here’s the thing: Am I going to let the D.C. Council pass a law that hurts a rape victim?”
Mendelson said he was open to assessing all of the objections to the crime bill.
Pinto, who was not available for an interview Friday, said in a written statement that she was still intent on modernizing the criminal code and would begin meeting with local leaders to “determine a plan for moving forward that accomplishes our goals while recognizing the reality of the political situation we are in.”
“I believe pausing to assess the situation and craft a long-term strategy with allies is in our best interest,” she said. But she added that the public safety committee also has its hands full with a number of other priorities, such as preventing domestic violence and hate crimes and helping residents returning from prison get on a “productive path forward.”
“We cannot let Republican machinations with our criminal code monopolize our time and prevent us from pursuing the rest of our vital public safety agenda,” she said.
Mendelson said that as D.C. now confronts Republicans’ effort to overturn its police accountability legislation, city leaders need to think hard about their messaging. He said city leaders “lost control” of the messaging during the debate over the criminal code bill, which was complicated by Bowser’s veto of the bill.
Now, he said, simply urging Congress to keep its hands off D.C. won’t be enough. He intends to focus on messaging that defends the merits of the legislation, which was crafted in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, and to stress that this is about police accountability.
The bill includes provisions such as prohibiting neck restraints, requiring the public release of body-camera footage after officer-involved shootings and creating a database of certain police misconduct that would be open for public inspection if the allegations of misconduct against an officer are substantiated.
Many of those provisions have already been enacted on a temporary or emergency basis since 2020, and Congress did not intervene to block them in the past, Mendelson pointed out. The bill that passed the council recently, without Bowser’s signature, makes permanent many of the changes and adds others.
Still, even though congressional Democrats have broadly supported the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — and D.C. statehood — Mendelson said the city can’t just assume Democrats will support D.C. home rule based on what happened with the crime bill.
“I’m afraid that we’re going to see more of this for the remainder of this Congress. And I’m scrambling to be prepared,” he said. “We got behind, which I did not expect. And so I’m not taking it for granted that our Democratic friends are going to protect us on this one.”
Emily Davies contributed to this report.