Ward 4 Council member Janeese Lewis George, a former prosecutor, wants fair sentencing to be a top priority in the Revised Criminal Code Act for the District of Columbia. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
Ward 4 Council member Janeese Lewis George, a former prosecutor, wants fair sentencing to be a top priority in the Revised Criminal Code Act for the District of Columbia. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Overview:

Council Members Differ on Increasing Penalties for Certain Gun Crimes

The D.C. Council recently approved legislation that modernizes D.C.’s more-than-a-century-old criminal code. The legislation, known as the Revised Criminal Code Act, now goes to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) for approval. 

The council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday culminated a process spanning 16 years and countless hours of meetings hosted by the Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC), along with council hearings and community meetings.    

In the weeks leading up to the council’s vote, Bowser described elements of the Revised Criminal Code Act as lax and a threat to public safety. She also expressed concern that residents didn’t have ample opportunity to provide feedback.   

Even so, council members, and particularly D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) remained committed to making no more changes to the Revised Criminal Code Act in the midnight hour. 

He even went as far as encouraging his colleagues to reject amendments proposed by D.C. Council members Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) on Tuesday. 

“At the last hearing, I spoke at length about the numerous compromises made to accommodate additional requests from the U.S. attorney’s office and the Metropolitan Police Department,” Allen said. 

“Today we have the opportunity to take a monumental step toward a much improved criminal code, one that’s more fair, more clear, more proportionate and just as effective at holding people who do harm accountable and keeping our city safe.” 

The Revised Criminal Code will take effect in October 2025 with some aspects of the law falling in place by 2030. 

Last year, the D.C. Council received the proposed legislation that included recommendations from the Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC). Those recommendations included eliminating mandatory minimums for criminal offenses, securing jury trials for misdemeanors, reducing the District’s most extreme penalties and expanding the Second Look Act to inmates who were handed their convictions at the age of 25 or older. 

To the chagrin of advocates, the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety revised portions of the Revised Criminal Code Act. The version approved by the D.C. Council increased penalties for robbery, carjacking, burglary and offensive criminal acts beyond what the CCRC recommended. 

However, that was about as far as council members seemed willing to go. 

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council struck down, 10 to 3, Pinto’s amendment which would’ve increased the penalties for offenses involving illegal possession of a firearm. White later withdrew his amendment which, if passed, would have increased penalties where an offender discharges at least 10 bullets at the scene of a shooting.   

Pinto said she introduced the amendment out of concern that the Revised Criminal Code Act, as is, didn’t go far enough in penalizing certain gun crimes. D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) shared Pinto’s sentiments. 

Before the vote on Pinto’s amendment, Allen, and other council members, countered the assertion that the Revised Criminal Code Act didn’t effectively punish certain violent offenses. 

D.C. Council members Christina Henderson (I-At-large) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) shared Allen’s referenced feedback from CCRC Executive Director Jinwoo Charles Park and community members when they said fair sentencing must be top priority.

Lewis George, a former prosecutor, said higher penalties don’t deter violent crime, nor do they save District taxpayers money. 

“I cannot support this amendment because it won’t make our communities any safer,” Lewis George said in reference to Pinto’s amendment.  

“The data shows that higher maximums are ineffective at preventing gun violence. Those of us who are barred in D.C. know this. We should be more thoughtful.” 

The degree to which the D.C. Council prioritized the needs of the community had been a subject of great debate throughout the process.  

For weeks, a coalition composed of Black-led community abolitionist defense hub Harriet’s Wildest Dreams,  DC Justice Lab and the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, organized around retaining the Revised Criminal Code Act’s original language.  

Other groups, including the DC Justice Lab, circulated flyers challenging the notion that people wouldn’t be penalized for spitting on others, urinating in public or carjacking. 

In the days before the Revised Criminal Code Act’s passage through the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, Patrice Sulton executive director of DC Justice Lab, implored committee members to heed to the input of criminal justice experts. 

In the end, certain hallmarks of the Revised Criminal Code Act remained intact. With the ongoing dearth of District court judges however, some council members, including Henderson, recommended that the D.C. Council adjusts elements of the Revised Criminal Code Act as needed, especially as it relates to expanded jury trials. 

“It’s going to be important for this body to be nimble,” Henderson said. 

“I appreciate that we have checkpoints as we bring back the right to jury trial for misdemeanors. I hope that everyone is open to revisiting this if our vacancy situation does not improve.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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