DC's Crime Reform Bill Knocked Down by Congress
March 13, 2023
Last week, Congress voted to strike down reforms to Washington, DC’s criminal code by flexing its authority over the District’s law for the first time in decades. President Biden has indicated he will sign the bill.
Background: Since the Republicans took control of the House, there has been renewed interest in exercising their ability to oversee DC Government. GOP-focused efforts commenced with a House vote to overturn a DC bill that allowed non-citizens to cast ballots in local elections. The movement picked up bipartisan steam after the city passed a controversial reform bill to the criminal code just as violent crimes are on the rise.
What was in the DC Criminal Code reform?
- Eliminated nearly all mandatory minimum sentences;
- Reduced maximum penalties for some crimes (including robberies and carjackings); and
- Expanded the right to a jury trial for most misdemeanors.
How did this happen?
- February 9: The House, in a moment of bipartisanship, voted to pass a resolution blocking DC’s criminal code reforms 250 - 173, with 40 Democrats joining all Republicans. At this point, most observers expected Biden to veto the proposal.
- March 2: Biden surprised Democrats by releasing a statement on Twitter that shared his support of DC statehood and home rule but didn’t support the changes to the criminal code. It ended with “If the Senate votes to overturn what the DC council did - I’ll sign it.”
- March 6: D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson attempted to withdraw the bill to prevent it from going into the Senate, but the Home Rule Act prevented that move.
- March 8: The Senate voted to pass the House’s resolution to block DC’s criminal code reforms 81-14.
What does this mean going forward?
- For Democrats it has been a messaging nightmare. The timing of Biden’s statement after the House vote put vulnerable Democrats in a tough position on crime heading into 2024. The resounding vote in the Senate after the White House support illustrates that Democrats in safe seats recognize the political peril of messaging on crime.
- For Republicans it was a messaging win. They released attack ads against vulnerable Democrats who voted to uphold reforms.
- For DC it was a major setback to statehood and home-rule.
- Overall as crime rates continue to rise, Democrats and Republicans will have to grapple with how to reduce crime. Over the next 18 months, heading into the 2024 election, this will be an issue to watch.
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