If you only read conservative and centrist pundits, you’d think the District of Columbia is about to embark upon a frightening experiment to weaken or abolish criminal penalties for violent crime. Fox News has devoted frenzied coverage to the claim that D.C. is “softening” its criminal laws. Republican politicians like Sen. Tom Cotton have seized on the story, as have conservative commentators like Erick Erickson, who cited it as evidence that Congress should abolish self-governance in the District. The Washington Post editorial board opined that a new “crime bill could make the city more dangerous,” claiming it would “tie the hands of police and prosecutors while overwhelming courts.” This coverage all repeats the same two claims: that D.C. is poised to slash prison sentences for violent offenses, and that these reforms will lead to more crime.
Neither of these claims is true.
The legislation that D.C. passed in January is not a traditional reform bill, but the result of a 16-year process to overhaul a badly outdated, confusing, and often arbitrary criminal code. The revision’s goal was to modernize the law by defining elements of each crime, eliminating overlap between offenses, establishing proportionate penalties, and removing archaic or unconstitutional provisions. Every single change is justified in meticulous reports that span thousands of pages. Each one was crafted with extensive public input and support from both D.C. and federal prosecutors. Eleventh-hour criticisms of the bill rest on misunderstandings, willful or otherwise, about its purpose and effect. They malign complex, technocratic updates as radical concessions to criminals. In many cases, criticisms rest on sheer legal illiteracy about how criminal sentencing actually works.
The D.C. bill is not a liberal wishlist of soft-on-crime policies. It is an exhaustive and entirely mainstream blueprint for a more coherent and consistent legal system.
Efforts to revise the District’s criminal code began in 2006. Lawmakers recognized that D.C.’s criminal laws were a mess—the product of legislation enacted by Congress in 1901 and tweaked in piecemeal fashion ever since. Countless jurisdictions across the country overhauled their criminal codes beginning in the 1960s, and the city council acknowledged that D.C.’s was overdue for a fresh look. In 2016, the council finally commenced the project in earnest by creating the Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC). Councilmembers directed the commission to pore over the books, identify existing problems, and recommend comprehensive solutions.
The CCRC consisted of staff attorneys and an advisory group of experts. The latter included representatives from the U.S. attorney’s office and the D.C. attorney general’s office, separate entities that prosecute all crimes and misdemeanors committed in the District. The commission held dozens of public meetings over four years, then published minutes and audio recordings from each one. In 2021, it published hundreds of pages of recommendations accompanied by thousands of pages of commentary. It also published well over 2,000 pages of appendices containing every draft document, study, chart, table, and data compilation used in its work. This massive array of materials allows an interested reader to learn exactly how the commission carried out its mandate in painstaking detail.
At the end of the process, the advisory group voted unanimously to submit its recommendations to the council. To reiterate, that group included representatives from the two offices that prosecute crimes in D.C. The D.C. Council unanimously passed the bill—known as the Revised Criminal Code Act, or RCCA—after making relatively small changes. The U.S. attorney’s office did not oppose final passage and the D.C. attorney general affirmatively supported it. Yet Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the bill, expressing the spurious concerns echoed on Fox News. The council easily overrode her veto. It will take effect in 2025.
What problems did the RCCA address? Where to start: One of the biggest issues is that the old code fails to identify the elements of countless offenses. These omissions force the D.C. Court of Appeals to fill in the blanks, creating ongoing uncertainty about what the law requires. Some offenses are, on the page, incredibly broad; a kidnapping statute that carries a 30-year maximum sentence, for instance, could encompass giving someone an unforeseen hug. Others are vague, like simple assault—a commonly charged offense whose elements are not defined in the current code. This confusion makes it more difficult to combat crime: Prosecutors are less likely to bring charges when they aren’t sure what they’ll need to prove to secure a conviction. The RCCA ensures that each offense is defined so that courts, prosecutors, and defendants know what is (and what isn’t) criminal conduct.
Vague crimes also lead to inconsistent and arbitrary sentences. Consider the example of robbery. In the current code, there’s a single robbery statute with a maximum penalty of 15 years. It covers everything from nonviolent pickpocketing to beating someone up so badly that they’re hospitalized. Even snatching a pizza from a delivery driver and refusing to pay qualifies as robbery under the current code. And the penalty for the offense doesn’t change if the offender was armed (though other gun offenses may apply). The RCCA, by contrast, divides the crime into armed robbery and unarmed robbery, then breaks each category into first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree offenses.
Third-degree unarmed robbery covers conduct that involves verbal threats or minor injuries like a bruise; the maximum sentence is two years. Second-degree unarmed robbery covers more serious injuries like a broken arm; the maximum sentence is four years. First-degree unarmed robbery covers life-threatening injuries; the maximum sentence is 14 years. These sentences are much higher if the person has a weapon, imposing a maximum penalty of 20 years on top of the sentence for additional weapons offenses.
This nuance is not reflected in the discourse. A critic of the RCCA could claim that the maximum sentence for robbery has dropped. In a misleading sense, that’s true: A pickpocket who would’ve faced a max of 15 years now faces a max of two. But in reality, the RCCA has brought the penalty in proportion to the severity of the crime by creating gradations. It reserves longer sentences for people who commit worse crimes. First-degree armed robbery is punishable by 20 years in prison, a sentence Fox News recently characterized as “a slap on the wrist.” That person is also subject to punishment under a separate chapter that covers weapons offenses. A thief who grabs a woman’s wrist then runs away with her purse deserves to be punished. They do not deserve the same punishment as a thief who beats that woman half to death.