The Washington Post
What to know about disputed measure and why it’s controversial
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on whether it will formally strike down a controversial overhaul of D.C’S criminal code.
The measure was passed last year by the D.C. Council, which overrode a mayoral veto to try to enact it into law. But Congress has oversight of D.C. laws because of a provision in the Constitution, which means that depending on whether enough Democrats join Republicans to strike down the criminal code revisions, Congress could vote to block a piece of D.C. legislation for the first time in three decades.
With Democratic support, the House already passed a Republican-led resolution to stop the measure from becoming law. Then last week, President Biden stunned even some in his own party when he said he would sign the resolution. The chair of D.C’S city council, Phil Mendelson (D), on Monday tried to withdraw the bill before the Senate votes on it — a move he hoped would give the council time to rework the measure. But local and federal lawmakers said they doubt the move could prevent the Senate from voting, arguing that there is no precedent to withdraw a bill that was sent to Congress.
The Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 updates most of D.C’S criminal code for the first time since 1901, changing how crimes are defined and lowering statutory maximum penalties for some violent crimes.
The political rhetoric, however, has obscured some nuances of the roughly 275-page criminal code bill — most of which updates language to make more precise definitions of local laws and offenses. Here are answers to key questions you might have.
How will this affect sentences?
The revised code would eliminate almost all mandatory minimum sentences — except for first-degree murder, which would keep its mandatory minimum of 24 years. The code would change the maximum punishment for first-degree murder from life in prison to 51 years behind bars with aggravated circumstances, according to Jinwoo Park, the executive director of D.C’S Criminal Code Reform Commission who helped write the legislation. There would opportunities for that sentence to climb to 57 years, Park said, if the person committed a murder while on release for another crime.
For most crimes, including robbery, burglary and carjacking, the new code would lower maximum penalties and replace the sentencing range with a new tiered system — which proponents of the bill say would allow for sentencing guidelines to more accurately fit the severity of the offense.
Let’s take carjacking, for example, a crime that has been top of mind over the past few years for D.C. police and residents.
If a person were convicted of carjacking in D.C. under the current law, he could be sentenced to somewhere between seven and 21 years in prison (if he were not armed) and 15 to 40 years (if he used a weapon in the attack, and a judge found additional aggravating factors).
Under the new code, a person would face lower ranges. If convicted of unarmed carjacking, he would face a maximum sentence four to 18 years. If convicted of armed carjacking, he would face a maximum sentence 12 to 24 years, with a possible six-year addition if the carjacking was a crime of bias, Park said. The code would outline three separate gradations of carjacking — from first- to third-degree, depending on the severity of injuries suffered by the victim — to determine the more precise maximum.
Advocates say the new code calls for penalties in line with what people convicted of crimes are actually receiving in the District. The proposed code would also elongate maximum sentences for some misdemeanor offenses.
In the new system, as in the old one, prosecutors can add separate charges to increase the maximum punishment. With gun crimes that are often charged alongside a carjacking, a person could easily face a maximum penalty of more than 30 years, even under the revised code, advocates say.
Will people already convicted and sentenced be affected?
Some people will be.
If a person is charged with a crime committed before the re
vised code is implemented, their case would be adjudicated under the law in place at the time their case originated. But the proposed revision would allow a wider group of people to seek resentencing — building upon the city’s earlier efforts to allow people sentenced to lengthy prison terms when they were young to ask for reconsideration.
D.C. has already passed multiple iterations of laws allowing those convicted and sentenced years ago to ask for a do-over, and it has sometimes generated controversy. For example, a man convicted of brutally raping two women in 1992 asked a judge to shorten his sentence under a current D.C. law — a request that his victims strongly opposed in emotional pleas to the judge last month.
The new iteration in the proposed code would allow people of all ages to petition for resentencing after they had served 20 years of their sentence — not just those whose crimes occurred when they were younger than 25, who are currently allowed to petition after 15 years in prison.
Some analysts say that is hardly a radical move. Judges still have to sign off on the requests for resentencing, and proponents argue that it allows them to right wrongs of the past.
“It’s true that there is an expansion of resentencing, and that’s useful because many of the District’s residents who have been sentenced to long periods in prison are, I think, over-sentenced,” said Donald Braman, an associate law professor at George Washington University.
I’ve heard judges complain that this could burden the court system. How?
The new code would allow people charged in misdemeanor cases and facing less than six months behind bars to demand a jury trial instead of a bench trial, a change that some say would add significant strain to an already strapped court system.
Bench trials, in which judges decide guilt or innocence, are much faster than jury trials. But some experts, including the architects of the proposed criminal code, say that bench trials can
leave defendants vulnerable to the influence of one judge and that everyone should have a right to trial by peers.
The problem with jury trials is that they require a lot of resources, such as jurors, to execute, and D.C’S court system is already backlogged. The court has 10 judicial vacancies, and officials say judges having even more trials would cause further delays.
Though the impact would be felt most acutely by those going through the court system — victims and those accused of crimes — it also could have affected D.C. residents called to serve on a jury.
Those who are now called for jury duty every two years could be recalled annually, if not twice a year, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey Herring said recently.
Supporters of the bill have noted that implementation would not begin to phase in until 2027, giving the court time to fill its vacancies and prepare to handle more cases. They also say that in practice, only a small percentage of people facing less than six months in prison would probably opt for a jury.
The change would make D.C. law more closely resemble what it was between 1926 and 1993, when jury trials were allowed in all cases punishable by more than 90 days in jail or a fine of $300 or more.
What is the state of crime in D.C.?
The answer is complicated, and local officials would be the first to tell you they are not happy with crime in the city.
As of Tuesday, homicides were up 34 percent compared with the same time in 2022 — a year that breached the grim milestone of 200 homicides for only the second time in almost two decades — and car thefts have surged by 110 percent over that same period.
Some of the violence has unfolded near bustling public spaces.
In the past three months, there have been shootings in a Metro station, in an intersection teeming with restaurants and near Audi Field, where D.C. United played its home opener. Popular businesses in residential neighborhoods like Adams Morgan have experienced repeated break-ins. Property crime is up 32 percent.
But police data also shows signs of progress. Robberies are down by 16 percent compared with the same time last year, and overall violent crime has fallen by 8 percent. Carjackings have remained about the same year over year, hovering about 2 percent lower than at this time in 2022.
Biden, in talking about the criminal code, put D.C’S crime issue front and center, and members of Congress have used that moment to portray the city as particularly dangerous for residents and visitors.
But D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III has denied that the nation’s capital is any more unsafe than other major cities across the nation.
“I have traveled to cities and talked to police chiefs all across the country. That is emphatically not true,” he said Monday.