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Opinion D.C. is finally rewriting its criminal code. It needs to keep working.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) speaks during a council meeting on March 1. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
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Much of D.C.’s criminal code dates to the original version Congress passed in 1901. That it is badly in need of an overhaul is apparent from its references to “common scolds,” prohibitions against the playing of ballgames in the city’s streets and alleys, and mandates for the care and feeding of livestock. A rewrite of the code set for a vote this week by a D.C. Council committee goes far beyond cleaning up outdated language. It touches every aspect of the criminal justice system in substantial, and some say troubling, ways.

The committee plans to vote Wednesday on the 450-page bill redefining and clarifying crimes and penalties. Among the significant proposed changes: elimination of most mandatory minimum sentences, expansion of the Second Look Amendment Act to allow more people serving long sentences to petition for release, and broadening the right to a jury trial in almost all misdemeanor cases. (Most are now determined by bench trials).

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Some concerns have been raised. D.C. police are worried that changes to the code could impede their ability to ensure public safety and address quality-of-life issues. Federal prosecutors question the wisdom of significantly reducing the maximum sentences for certain serious violent offenses, including burglary, robbery and carjacking, and the elimination of mandatory minimums for violent offenses when a firearm is used. In a letter last week to the council highlighting his office’s concerns, U.S. Attorney for D.C. Matthew M. Graves warned of “unintended adverse consequences.” There is also consternation about whether D.C. Superior Court, already overstressed with a backlog of cases and numerous judicial vacancies, will be able to handle an expansion of jury trials.

The sweeping rewrite began in 2006 with council legislation and continued in 2016 with the formation of the D.C. Criminal Code Reform commission, an independent body charged with designing a system that would be clearer, fairer and more proportionate. The District’s current justice system has been criticized as too reliant on case precedent and inconsistent charging and sentencing decisions mostly by federal prosecutors and judges instead of on laws passed by the city’s elected officials. One example of the system’s irrationality: D.C.’s current criminal code punishes arson of one’s own property more severely than other arson.

“To put it bluntly, D.C.’s criminal laws are a mess and literally decades and decades overdue for reform,” said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the judiciary committee who has helped shepherd the bill to this week’s planned markup. Mr. Allen has done admirable work over the past year in listening to the major stakeholders, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, public defenders and police, and coming up with compromises on some of the more controversial recommendations of the commission. Included here: keeping carjacking and assault on a police officer as stand-alone offenses, maintaining mandatory minimum sentences for first-degree murder and providing for longer periods of implementation.

This long-overdue initiative is one of the most consequential pieces of legislation to ever come before the council. Council members must give it careful consideration and allow thorough debate. Going forward, they should also continue to solicit public feedback and revise it as needed along the way to its 2025 effective date.

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