D.C. police last year seized 2,410 illegal firearms, a frightening number that has already been exceeded this year. With nearly two months still to go in 2022, police have so far recovered 2,755 guns. The city is awash in guns. So here’s a question for the D.C. Council: What message will it send if it goes ahead with plans to reduce penalties for firearm offenses?
Reductions in maximum-allowable penalties for some gun crimes would be part of a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s century-old criminal code. The 450-page bill sailed through committee last month and received a unanimous vote on first reading with no changes. A final vote is set for Tuesday.
There is much to commend the legislation, which gets rid of outdated language, clarifies the definitions of some crimes and brings more consistency to penalties. As we have noted, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, did admirable work listening to the concerns of stakeholders and greatly improving the recommendations of the independent Criminal Code Reform Commission.
Nonetheless, improvements are needed, and the council should carefully consider the potential impact of some of the proposed changes on public safety. Foremost is the reduction in maximum sentences for certain violent offenses and too-lenient treatment of gun crimes. Under the current code, for example, possession of a firearm by an unauthorized person who has been convicted of a violent crime is punishable with a three-year mandatory minimum and a maximum of 15 years. The proposed crime bill eliminates the mandatory minimum and sets the maximum sentence at four years. Fifteen-year sentences are rarely, if ever, handed down and mandatory minimums take needed discretion away from judges, but a four-year maximum represents a step back from current maximum sentencing practices, which average about six years.
In a letter to the council, U.S. Attorney for D.C. Matthew Graves offered a primer on the significance of statutory maximum sentences. They do not, he wrote, “represent the community’s and legislature’s sense of what the minimum amount, or even average amount, of punishment for a crime should entail. Rather a statutory maximum — by definition — reflects the community’s and legislature’s belief as to what the sentence should be for committing the worst possible version of that offense, including when the person has a substantial criminal history.”
Mr. Allen has pushed back at criticism, arguing that judges will still be able to impose stiff sentences through penalty enhancements and other means. But council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who sits on the Judiciary Committee, noted the increase in violent crime with guns across the city and has introduced an amendment to stiffen the allowable maximum penalties, arguing it would make these offenses more commensurate with the dangers guns present.
Other concerns about the legislation have been raised, including the impact on an already stressed Superior Court of broadening the right to a jury trial to almost all misdemeanor cases and expansion of the Second Look Act to allow more people serving long sentences to petition for release. We urge the council not to rubber-stamp this bill in haste but modify it to address the concerns of police, prosecutors and judges. If it doesn’t, we urge Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to veto it.
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