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Bowser budget plan defunds panel that advised criminal code rewrite

City council chairman and director of the commission say they disagree with the mayor’s proposal, arguing that the panel’s expertise remains important

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser talks last year with a resident after she and D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III held a news conference. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has proposed ending the city commission that helped create a controversial overhaul of the criminal code, which Bowser vetoed and Congress voted to block earlier this month.

Bowser, presenting her fiscal 2024 budget proposal Wednesday, said the Criminal Code Reform Commission had completed its job when it made recommendations on the sweeping code revision, and that the remaining work should be left to her and legislators. But the D.C. Council chairman and director of the commission said they disagree with the mayor’s proposal, arguing that the commission’s expertise remains important as they city continues rewriting the code in a way that can successfully become law.

“This is all very shocking and it’s hard for us because we here believe the importance of the work that we’re doing,” said Jinwoo Park, executive director of the Criminal Code Reform Commission, which also includes three lawyers and a data scientist. “I know we’re a tiny little agency, but I think our recommendations would go a long way to improving the system in the city.”

The city council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee is scheduled to hold hearings related to the budget in the coming weeks before proposing modifications, but it is unclear whether there is a path forward for the agency.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he disagreed with the mayor’s proposal to slash the commission’s $960,000 operating budget and hopes other council members will agree with him and decide to keep it alive. He said, though, that he and council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who, as chair of the public safety committee, was noncommittal about the future of the commission’s funding, had not discussed what they would do next.

In a statement, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who served as a non-voting member of the commission’s advisory group when he was chair of the public safety committee, urged the council not to abandon the agency just “because one proposal didn’t make it all the way through the legislative process.”

D.C. criminal code faces uncertain future as city gears up for new battle

The District government established the Criminal Code Reform Commission as an independent agency in 2016 to provide legal and policy analysis of proposed legislation, and then updated its responsibilities five years later to include developing recommendations to overhaul D.C.’s criminal statute. That work culminated in the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022.

The commission, according to legislation passed in 2020, was supposed to remain as a permanent entity that would oversee implementation and future amendments to the new code and continue to issue recommendations relating to D.C. criminal law.

But that code never came to fruition. First, Bowser expressed concerns that its sentencing changes — such as lowering maximum sentences for carjackings — would make the city less safe and vetoed the bill. The city council then overrode her decision, making way for Congress to weigh in on the issue. On March 8, the Senate joined the House of Representatives in voting to reject the bill, marking the first time in more than 30 years that federal lawmakers overturned local D.C. legislation. The congressional resolution blocking the measure was signed by President Biden this week.

On Wednesday, Bowser expressed commitment to reworking the city’s criminal code, which includes outdated laws such as banning games with balls on city streets and being a “common scold.” But she said the remaining work is for city leaders and lawmakers.

“The council and the mayor are the policymakers of the city, and I believe the work remains among the 14 of us,” Bowser said. “I said that the work of the Criminal Code Reform Commission, in my view, is done.”

Park said he believes that eliminating the commission would be a mistake. City leaders may need to make more adjustments to the code as they seek to get it through Congress, and Park noted that in the past, council members leaned on the commission’s expertise to inform those decisions. He also said the commission is best suited to help implement the revised code, whatever its form, if it becomes law.

“This was never meant to be a singular written-in-stone package forever and ever and ever. There’s continually going to be changes to criminal laws, there’s new innovations as attitudes change,” Park said.

Patrice Sulton, the founder and executive director of the DC Justice Lab who formerly served as the senior attorney adviser of the criminal code commission, called for the panel to remain a permanent fixture in D.C. that functions to guide and inform city leaders on issues of justice and safety in the city.

“It’s a sad day for everybody who cares about public safety,” Sulton said. “To eliminate the best mechanism we have for producing change in a thoughtful, evidence-driven way is a huge step backward.”

Lawmakers this year were bracing for potential reductions in spending, particularly given that pandemic-era federal funding and grants will expire at the end of the next fiscal year. Last month, the city’s chief financial officer revised the city’s projected revenue downward by a total of $464 million between fiscal 2024 and 2026, citing a steep decline in tax revenue from commercial properties due largely to telework as well as inflation.

To balance the budget, the mayor proposed $373 million in cuts, which included the Criminal Code Reform Commission and the elimination of 749 vacant positions in city government, excluding police and firefighters. She also suggested pulling $257 million from the city’s fiscal reserves — a tool the mayor also employed near the onset of the pandemic. The city is required by law to use any excess revenue to replenish its reserves.

“As I reflect on my time in elected office, I haven’t seen these types of circumstances since I was a young council member following the last recession,” the mayor said. “Our resources are shrinking while our fixed costs are increasing.”