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Opinion A last, best chance to fix the D.C. criminal code

Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) speaks at the Capitol in 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
4 min

A controversial overhaul of Washington’s criminal code needs to be fixed. The D.C. Council last month overrode Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s veto of the measure, which would reduce the maximum penalties for offenses such as carjacking. The bill eliminates life sentences and gets rid of mandatory minimums for every crime but first-degree murder. Congress is now considering whether to strike down the city’s handiwork. D.C. officials would do well to show that they can fix the problem on their own.

The federal government has the authority to nullify laws in the capital city under the enclave clause in Article I of the Constitution and the D.C. Home Rule Act, though it hasn’t done so since 1991. In the coming weeks, the U.S. Senate will likely hold an up-or-down vote on whether to let the law go into effect. It’s not a partisan effort: The measure to overturn the bill already passed the House with 31 Democrats joining every Republican. One of them, Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), was mugged inside her H Street apartment building the morning of the House vote.

Federal lawmakers say their staffs and constituents should be able to work and visit the Capitol without fear or violence. They’re correct. So should the citizens in every corner of the city. At the same time, a congressional action to overturn the will of elected representatives in the District cannot be taken lightly. In our view, the D.C. Council should repair legislation that imperils the well-being of residents. Otherwise, the District will invite federal intervention. It’s a fight no one needs.

There is a framework for progress.

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Ms. Bowser (D) has proposed significant revisions to the updated code, including increased penalties for carjacking, robbery and illegal gun possession. She would repeal the provision that allows people charged with certain misdemeanors to demand jury trials, which could overwhelm the already backlogged court system. She wants to undo the expansion of the Second Look Act, which lets inmates request resentencing after 15 years behind bars, from those convicted when they were young to all prisoners. Ms. Bowser also seeks to postpone implementation of the code from 2025 to 2027.

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The mayor’s focus on carjacking is particularly urgent. From 2021 to 2022, motor vehicle thefts rose 8 percent, to 3,761. But there have already been more than 1,000 such thefts in the first eight weeks of the year, up 111 percent compared to the same period last year.

Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), the new chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, promises to hold hearings this spring to evaluate the mayor’s suggestions. “Illegally owning a firearm is a major problem in our city, and there should be a meaningful penalty associated with it,” she said in an interview. Other council members who championed the bill say they’re also willing to support adjustments and clarifications to address concerns.

Those who helped write the new code resist the prospect of delaying its implementation, but they also don’t want to start from scratch, which is what would happen if Congress enters the picture. Patrice Sulton, executive director of the DC Justice Lab, has criticized the mayor’s proposals, saying they would make sentences inconsistent and disproportionate. For example, she warns that, under Ms. Bowser’s proposal, a person who commits an unarmed burglary could be punished more forcefully than someone who is convicted of first-degree sexual assault.

Ensuring fairness and consistency in punishment are essential projects. And council members are right to express frustration that the mayor didn’t engage with them more as the criminal code rewrite was being drafted.

But that’s not where we are today. Public safety in the District is foundational. The city’s fragile post-covid rebuild depends on restoring a sense of security. Congress’s concern, therefore, is understandable. It has the right to intercede. The mayor and the council — perhaps guided by D.C. resident Joseph Biden — should render the discussion moot and make necessary repairs to the code to ensure the security of everyone who sets foot in these 68 square miles. It’s on these leaders, the ones elected close to home, to show that home rule and public safety are not incompatible.

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