The D.C. Council voted 12 to 1 to override Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of the Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA), with Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) being the sole “no” vote.
White, who didn’t speak during Tuesday’s legislative meeting, said he made his decision with the welfare of District residents, and particularly the youth, in mind.
While he expressed support for the spirit of the RCCA, the Ward 8 council member questioned whether legal reform alone would curb criminal activity in a city where so many people are in need of essential services and supports.
“The reality is that there are some comprehensive things that are always ignored like a real focus on trauma informed care, a quality education system, real pathways to jobs and economic opportunities,” White said.
White, chairperson of the council’s Committee on Recreation, Libraries and Youth Affairs, also spoke about housing policy and took the Department of Parks and Recreation to task for not keeping recreation facilities open throughout last weekend.
“We know what works , but we don’t know if these new laws drive down crime,” White said. “It’s 400 pages of amendments, but we absolutely know what has worked and spend little time, energy, and a real focus on that. It gives the notion that crime is okay as long as it happens to brown and Black people.”
Shortly after the council’s override, Bowser revealed plans to introduce legislation that addresses her concerns about the city’s response to criminal activity. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) made similar comments.
On Jan. 4, Bowser, a vocal critic of the RCCA, vetoed the legislation. Her concerns about the RCCA centered on youth crime and the activity of the local courts. A week later, Pinto and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) moved to override D.C. Mayor Bowser’s veto.
Before the veto override went to a vote, most of Council member White’s colleagues provided comments.
Those who spoke acknowledged the strong, citywide anti-crime sentiments that inspired Bowser’s veto. Even so, they expressed reluctance about overlooking the 16 years of deliberation that led to the revamp of the District’s criminal code.
Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At large), a legislator with experience in crafting anti-violence bills, went on to assert that the RCCA wouldn’t make the city less safe, all while imploring people not to fall for misinformation about the bill.
“All the fearmongering is totally and unnecessarily hyperbolic and counterproductive to anyone who wants to create safer and healthier communities in the District of Columbia,” McDuffie said. “I have worked for years as a council member to create healthier and safer communities. We poured so much into reforming laws and connecting people who need support to information and those opportunities.”
The RCCA now goes before Congress for approval.
Starting in 2025, the RCCA would revamp the District’s more-than-a-century-old criminal code to create more uniformity in how crimes are classified and how the court system determines criminal liability.
Such changes will lead to shorter sentences for non-violent offenses while allowing prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for more serious offenses, including those involving the use of a firearm.
Other aspects of the RCCA include the elimination of mandatory minimums for criminal offenses and the implementation of jury trials for misdemeanors. Under the RCCA, those convicted of crimes at the age of 25 and older could also petition for sentence reduction under the Second Look Amendment Act.
In a letter Bowser sent to D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) affirming her veto, she cited the reduction of penalties for offenses involving firearms, robberies, carjackings and home invasions. She also said the aspect of the RCCA involving jury trials for misdemeanors should’ve been introduced as a standalone bill so constituents can weigh in on it during hearings.
In the days following Bowser’s veto, some constituents, and some media outlets, echoed Bowser’s sentiments.
Much to the chagrin of the DC Justice Lab executive director Patrice Sulton, the Washington Post editorial board published a rebuke of the RCCA over the weekend that she described as mostly filled with inaccuracies about the legislation. She has since attempted to secure a retraction, to no avail.
Sulton, who has been deeply involved in the development of the RCCA for years, said the legislation reorganizes and reclassifies criminal offenses so that the penalties more closely align with the severity of offenses.
Sulton went on to tell The Informer that, under the RCCA, the severity of penalties, including that for robbery and murder, take into account the conduct, result, circumstances and intent, including whether the person possessed or used a firearm.
Sulton added that the current statutes do not clearly, constitutionally and consistently define crime, which means that appellate court judges determine the meaning of the law. Amid all the discussion about the RCCA lowering penalties for gun crimes, she said that her aforementioned point often gets overlooked by people with a zeal for incarceration.
When it comes to each criminal case, Sulton said penalties should reflect the circumstances at hand. She noted that it can only happen when judges are allowed more flexibility in their sentencing.
Though she acknowledged the potential of the RCCA to address racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, Sulton said it’s not the end all, be all in reforming the system. Moreover, she lamented the likelihood that she might have squandered political goodwill needed for more radical campaigns because of misconceptions about the RCCA’s potency.
“We can have a principled debate about alternative solutions to gun violence prevention, mass decarceration, and limiting state violence,” Sulton said. “The bill doesn’t do that. It puts all the offenses and penalties in the order that it’s supposed to be, and people act like it’s a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Everyone’s painting it as some radical thing when it’s not. What we’ve done is make the statutes clear and consistent.”