DC Council approves criminal code changes US Attorney’s Office warned ‘could undermine community safety’
The Washington, D.C. Council gave initial approval to a massive overhaul of the district’s criminal code despite objections from several high-ranking officials.
The council voted 12-0 in favor of the bill on Tuesday, with one member not voting. While the latest version of the bill took into account some objections that had been raised, it did not allay everyone’s fears.
“I don’t think that the final product for any stakeholder is going to reflect every single concern, but they have said they believe it should move forward, “Public safety committee chair Charles Allen said, according to the Washington Post. The statement was in reference to the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s issues with the bill.
The office of D.C. U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves has been vocal about its opposition to portions of the bill. In December 2021, Special Counsel to the U.S. Attorney Elana Suttenberg presented testimony to the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety in which she objected to many measures in the reform bill.
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In October 2022, Graves’s office issued a statement in which they acknowledged that reform was “sorely needed” but said they “still have concerns with multiple aspects of this bill and believe that some provisions, while well-intentioned, could undermine community safety and impede the administration of justice in our courts.” The statement made reference to Suttenberg’s testimony, which they said referenced “provisions with which we strenuously disagree.”
Those provisions include reduced maximum sentences, the elimination of nearly all mandatory minimum sentences, the expansion of the right to jury trials, and the elimination of accomplice liability in felony murder cases.
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The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in October that they still had concerns about these issues and said they hoped the council would “continue to listen to our concerns.”
To a degree, they did. An earlier version of the bill called for eliminating all mandatory minimums, but the version the council approved provided an exception for first-degree murder charges, which the prosecutor’s office suggested. Graves’s office also called for a higher maximum penalty for first-degree burglary, from the proposed four years to six years.
Other reforms have led to concerns that the criminal justice system will be overwhelmed. The bill calls for a right to a trial by jury – as opposed to a bench trial decided only by a judge – for any offense bearing a penalty of more than 60 days in jail, which covers most misdemeanors.
“The concept we’re not opposed to, but we are opposed to placing that burden on our courts, which are experiencing a vacancy crisis,” Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told lawmakers in October, according to DCist.com.
Allen defended the provision.
“We’ve got to make sure we have a full complement of judges, but it’s also important that people have a right to a jury,” Allen said, according to the Post. “D.C. is an extreme outlier. It’s us and only nine other states where people don’t even have a right to a jury.”
Bowser also opposed a part of the bill that allows any incarcerated person to petition the court for early release. The current law only allows people younger than 25 to do this after serving 15 years. The revision would let people older than 25 do this as well after serving 20 years.
The mayor said this should be done through its own bill.
“We think that new policy proposals can and should be dealt with separately from the criminal code rewrite,” Bowser said, according to the Post.
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Bowser and D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III both opposed the bill’s reduction of many sentences.
“If we’re reducing a sentence from ten years down to five years, that makes the city less safe,” Contee said in October. Bowser claimed that this “sends the wrong message to our residents when we are using every resource in our government to drive down crime.”
The bill will go for a final council vote in last November or December. If it passes that step, it will go to Bowser’s desk for a signature and then to Congress for final approval.
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