The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a sweeping overhaul of the city’s century-old criminal code, a monumental 16-year effort that updates the definitions of criminal offenses, creates new grades of sentences based on the severity of the crime, eliminates most mandatory minimum sentences, and broadly expands the right to a jury trial for people charged with misdemeanors.
The 450-page bill heads next to Mayor Muriel Bowser, who in recent weeks said she would consider vetoing it unless certain changes were made. (If she does veto it, the council could override her.) The bill will also have to survive a 60-day congressional review, a significant portion of which is expected to happen in the new Congress — in which the House is expected to be led by Republicans. If it makes it past that, the new provisions will not take effect until Oct. 2025, with some phasing in even more slowly.
The effort to rewrite the criminal code started in 2006, with the goal of updating and refining criminal laws that were originally written by Congress in 1901 and only updated in piecemeal fashion since then. The painstaking process was largely left to the D.C. Criminal Code Reform Commission, with lawmakers only making small changes over the last year and casting a first unanimous vote in favor of the package earlier this month.
The council’s approval of the overhaul comes amidst a spike in violent crime in D.C., much of it linked to guns. In the weeks leading up to the council’s votes, Mayor Muriel Bowser and U.S. Attorney for D.C. Matthew Graves pushed for changes to be made, largely by increasing penalties for gun-related offenses. Bowser said she worried that not doing so would send the wrong message, especially as the city struggles to get a hold on shooting and fatalities.
On Tuesday, Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) introduced an amendment that would have increased prison sentences people caught illegally possessing a gun. “These [changes] recognize the toll of gun violence on our communities,” she said.
“We’re swimming in guns and gun violence. We need a multi-pronged effort to respond to it. But we would be blind if we did not recognize that how we treat people who run around with guns matter,” said Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), speaking in support of Pinto’s amendment. “There’s messages, and I do think they do matter. It is not a good message from this council to say we are going to reduce penalties for guns.”
But Pinto’s proposal — which Bowser and Graves supported — drew opposition from most of her colleagues, with some accusing her of “legislating by headline,” others saying it was premised on “alarmist talking points,” and one saying that any changes in the criminal code would not impact crime today since they don’t take effect until 2025.
Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s judiciary committee, said the revised criminal code included a variety of charges that could be stacked to address gun crimes and secure appropriate penalties. (The executive director of the Criminal Code Reform Commission said in a letter he opposed Pinto’s amendment.) And Chairman Phil Mendelson pushed back on the argument that stricter penalties would have a deterrent effect.
“Sentencing has little or no deterrent effect,” he said. “Politicians often propose longer sentences to fight crime, and it’s the wrong approach.”
“It’s important for people to know that the criminal code before us is not lowering penalties. In many areas, it is raising penalties. In some cases, there are whole new offenses that are easier for the prosecution to prove,” added Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), before the 10-3 vote against Pinto’s amendment.
Bowser had also raised concerns about a separate provision that will restore the right to a jury trial for people charged with a misdemeanor, a right that was curtailed in the mid-1990s amidst a budget and staffing shortage at D.C. Superior Court. Bowser said she worries that the court would be swamped by new cases, thus slowing down the justice system for everyone.
That worry resonated with more lawmakers, though Allen said the expansion of the right to a jury trial would phase in slowly between 2025 and 2030 to allow the court system to adapt. Still, in a letter this week to the council, the chief judges of Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals warned that expanding jury trials and giving more convicts the chance to petition for a sentence reduction — which the new code will do — could prove to be too much for the justice system to handle unless it receives more resources.
“The workload of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals will rise as the requirements increase at the trial court level. The implementation of the [revised criminal code] is a sea change,” they wrote. “The public we serve deserves a judicial system properly equipped to handle these significant legislative changes in a manner that does not compromise the fair and timely administration of justice.”
There are currently 14 vacancies out of 62 judges in Superior Court, and two vacancies out of nine judges on the Court of Appeals. Judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This week D.C. officials pressed both to work more quickly to move nominations through so that vacancies could be filled.
The council will also have to fund the implementation of the new criminal code, which is expected to cost $50 million, largely to cover the cost of training D.C. police officers on the new provisions.