The Council of the District of Columbia on Tuesday overrode the mayor’s veto to force through a plan to fundamentally change the way the city penalizes crimes including robbery, carjacking, and home invasion burglary.
In a decisive 12–1 vote, the city council overrode Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Jan. 4 decision to veto the proposal, known as the Revised Criminal Code Act. The all-Democrat council unanimously voted to pass the bill in November 2022.
The proposed legislation offers a full rewrite of Washington’s criminal code, which has been untouched since it was first create by Congress in 1901, with changes such as eliminating almost all mandatory minimum sentences, lowering the maximum sentence possible to 45 years in prison, and allow people to demand jury trials for nearly all misdemeanor charges.
It’s estimated that implementing these changes will cost $50 million, largely for the retraining of police and prosecutors.
According to Councilwoman Brooke Pinto, the legislation represents “years of work and thorough study” with a goal to modernize the criminal code and ultimately make the city’s residents safer.
“The culmination of this work is a revised criminal code that is more equitable and just and that will promote safety by ensuring that the law is clear for prosecutors, defendants, and courts,” Pinto wrote in a statement announcing the move to override the mayor’s veto.
The mayor, who is also a Democrat, disagreed that those changes would actually make her city a safer place.
“A complete overhaul of our criminal code is a once-in-a-century opportunity,” Bowser wrote in her veto message. “I believe it’s more important to get this opportunity right than to add policies and weaken penalties into what should be a bill that makes DC safer.”
Bowser was joined by U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves, who warned the council that, among other things, the changes would lead to a dramatic increase of jury trials for an already undermanned court system troubled with backlogs, giving violent criminals more time out on bail while awaiting their cases to go through.
Bowser and Graves also argued that penalties for crimes such as robberies and carjacking should be raised, not reduced.
“The higher penalties are not handed down for many offenders, but they are currently available to judges for repeat violent offenders committing the most heinous versions of these crimes,” Bowser wrote.
Rising Crime Rates in Nation’s Capital
The council’s decision comes as Washington is experiencing more crime in the first weeks of the year compared to the same time period in 2022.
According to the latest data from the Metropolitan Police, as of Jan. 18, there had been 11 homicides and six cases of sex abuse in 2023 compared to the first 18 days of 2022, which had six homicides and two cases of sex abuse. Violent crime as a whole decreased by 7 percent, but overall crime increased by 25 percent.
“Over the past two years, DC has had a skyrocketing crime rate,” the DC Police Union said in a statement condemning Tuesday’s vote.
“Homicides are now regularly over 200 per year. There are nearly 500 carjackings, 2,000 robberies, and 800 shootings per year. These numbers are almost double what they were two and three years ago. Only a decade ago the homicide rate was below 100,” the police union said.
“Every resident should be outraged that the Council has weakened the criminal justice system in a way that makes every neighborhood less safe,” police union chairman Gregg Pemberton said in the statement. “Their actions today are shameful.”
The bill now heads to Congress, where lawmakers will have 60 days to weigh in on it.