On March 2, U.S. President Joe Biden said he would support a Republican-led bill that aims to nullify recent changes to Washington, D.C.’s laws which lowered penalties for some crimes, such as car jackings, irking some within his own circle who say Biden is steeping on the District’s right to self-govern and that his willingness to sign the bill is ideologically inconsistent.
“I support D.C. statehood and home rule, but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections, such as lowering penalties for car jackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did, I’ll sign it,” Biden tweeted.
Biden’s support prompted Washington D.C.’s Council Chairman, Phil Mendelson, to send a letter to the Senate, on March 6, withdrawing the changes to the city’s crime law before a vote on the Republican-backed bill could take place.
At a news conference on March 6, Mendleson said that he had penned a “very brief” letter withdrawing the crime bill and that it is “no longer properly before the Congress,” adding that the Home Rule Act, which governs Washington, requires local legislation be “transmitted to both houses.”
Biden’s about-face on the bill angered a number of Democrats who prioritize D.C.’s ability to self govern and say that Biden’s willingness to sign the bill is seen by some as a sign of ideological inconsistency.
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who represents D.C. in Congress, told Politico, after Biden’s announcement that he would side with Republicans, “I think it is all political. It comes at a time when crime is going up around the country. I had hoped that [Biden] would stick to where he usually has been, which is to support home rule, whatever the District says.”
One unnamed House Democrat told The Hill, “A lot of us who are allies voted no in order to support what the White House wanted. Now we are being hung out to dry. F****** amateur hour. Heads should roll over at the White House over this.”
Attorney General Brian Schwalb also spoke out, writing on Twitter that “any effort to overturn DC law degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self govern–a right that almost every other American has,” adding that, “As the city’s chief legal officer, I will continue to advocate for DC’s full autonomy and #Statehood.”
Councilmember Charles Allen also took to Twitter to air his grievances over the matter, tweeting, “Defending those without power matters – past pledges of support for DC Statehood couldn’t ring more hollow. Its a reminder that until the nearly 700,000 residents of DC have full statehood & autonomy, we will be seen & treated as a colony, even by those who purport to support us.”
Substantially reduced criminal penalties
However, the bill would have substantially reduced criminal penalties, a move many say sends the wrong message.
According to the Washington Post, the Bill, had it survived, would have substantially reduced criminal penalties for a wide range of crimes, including illegal gun possession and carjacking, a felony that’s rate has skyrocketed over recent years in the District.
“The bill eliminates life sentences and gets rid of mandatory minimums for every crime but first-degree murder. The maximum penalty for someone convicted of a violent felony while using a gun to commit more violence would drop to four years from 15 years,” the Washington Post reported, adding that, “This is not an evidence-based approach to public safety. The data is clear that firearms offenders recidivate at higher rates and more quickly than those who committed crimes without guns…Proponents of the bill say African Americans are disproportionately convicted of violent crimes and couch their arguments in terms of equity.”
The bill would have lowered the maximum penalty for Armed Burglary of a Home down from 60 years to just eight years and someone convicted of Armed Robbery would face four to eight years in prison, down from 45 years.
Armed carjacking would have landed someone in prison for 40 years under the current criminal code, however under the proposed changes the same crime would garner a punishment of between eight and 12 years.
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Antiquated criminal code
D.C.’s criminal code has not received many revisions since it was first implemented in 1901 and references both stables and steamboats as well as a ban on “common scolds,” a term for angry women who disturb the peace and that children playing in the streets of D.C. is technically a criminal offense.
While the code has received some minor amendments over the years it has never had a complete overhaul.
A study, conducted in 2000 by three Brooklyn law school professors ranked D.C.’s criminal code as one of the worst in the nation.
However, following over a decade and a half of work, D.C.’s council approved a sweeping overhaul of the code in November last year, with the changes slated to take effect in 2025.
At the time, Charles Allen said that the work to date “Is the product of countless meetings, hard collaboration and compromise and thoughtful engagement by a wide range of stakeholders, all of which might disagree with a particular element of the total package, but unanimously recommended moving it forward, nonetheless,” NBC Washington reported.
“Basically [right now], you just have robbery,” Allen said. “And what we’ll have under a revised code is, we’ll have both armed and unarmed robbery, but then different degrees: first, second and third degree, which really again helps the court, helps victims, helps defendants really know the harm that was done.”
According to the DCist, “Outdated terms and definitions were tossed out, crimes were redefined, new gradated sentences were drawn up to match the severity of specific offenses, and new criminal justice policies were proposed.”