President Biden will not veto the Republican backed legislation blocking changes to the D.C. Criminal Code. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
President Biden will not veto the Republican backed legislation blocking changes to the D.C. Criminal Code. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

UPDATED March 5, 11:38 p.m. EST

President Joe Biden announced Thursday his support for a congressional resolution that strikes down a D.C. Council overhaul of the city’s criminal code — likely meaning the federal overturn of District law for the first time in decades.

Biden told Senate Democrats in a private meeting Thursday that he wouldn’t use his veto power to stop the GOP-engineered crusade against the Revised D.C. Criminal Code Act (RCCA). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) later confirmed it to reporters. 

In an official tweet, the president later cited the D.C. Council’s overturn of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto earlier this year as the primary reason. 

“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule – but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden said on Twitter. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it.”

In February, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) introduced the aforementioned resolution striking down the RCCA. That resolution accompanied another one that disapproved council legislation allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections.

Within a matter of days, the RCCA disapproval resolution passed through the House (250-173) with the support of 31 Democratic lawmakers.

On the Senate side, it has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) has since revealed their intentions to vote in favor of the resolution. 

Earlier this year, not long after congressional Republicans moved forward with their resolution, Bowser introduced legislation that removes key elements of the RCCA and brings it before the council as individual bills. Some of those provisions include the expansion of jury trials and the Second Look Act, along with the reduction of penalties for carjacking. 

Meanwhile, D.C. Council members have continued to appeal to congressional leadership through letters and statements. During the latter part of February, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) acknowledged the council for its efforts to advance the cause of home rule and self-determination. 

Biden’s comments Thursday elicited a bevy of responses from local Democrats. The D.C. Democratic Party retweeted the president in what seemed like a show of support, but has since deleted the post. They didn’t respond to an Informer inquiry about Biden’s decision not to veto the disapproval resolution.

Earlier in the day, Rep. Oye Owolewa posted a letter that Biden recently wrote to him in support of D.C. statehood. He called Biden’s decision to not veto the disapproval resolution a dangerous precedent that puts D.C. in the crosshairs of conservative lawmakers eager to score political points with their constituents. 

Owolewa said that D.C. residents have to organize around statehood and other issues of importance to Democrats locally and nationally. He also suggested taking the fight to other states, just as he did last year when, during a visit to Charleston, West Virginia, he joined West Virginia House of Delegate Minority Leaders Doug Skaff Jr. and Sean Hornbuckle as they introduced a D.C. statehood resolution

“People perceive statehood as a vote in Congress but it’s more than that,” Owolewa said. “We have to let President Biden know that D.C. statehood means every aspect of our autonomy in the District. People are discouraged by the recent events, but it’s time to restore some confidence, whether that means protesting and reaching out to our friends in other states to lobby on D.C.’s behalf. We have to show why D.C. statehood is important.”

Jamal Holtz, president of D.C. Young Democrats, said he and his fellow executive board members are in the process of circulating a petition calling on Biden to veto the disapproval resolution. Though he separated Biden’s sentiment about the RCCA from his stance on statehood, Holtz said any affront to District self-determination jeopardizes efforts to make D.C. the 51st state. 

“We can’t pick and choose when we want federal intervention on our issues. It’s derelict in our fight for statehood,” Holtz said. “It sends an anti-democratic message to people who support our fight for statehood and it leans into the Republican ideal of overturning D.C. laws based on their belief that they can do that. This is what subjugation looks like.” 

The RCCA, 16 years in the making, was the culmination of a series of meetings facilitated by the Criminal Code Reform Commission along with D.C. Council hearings. In the weeks preceding its unanimous passage, Bowser, who along with others have spoken about the need for more of a punitive response to violent crime, expressed apprehension about elements of the legislation. 

Since the start of the year, leadership within the DC Justice Lab, an ardent RCCA supporter, has fought toe to toe with what has been described as a misinformation campaign. 

Last month, DC Justice Lab Executive Director Patrice Sulton told The Informer that the RCCA creates uniformity in how punishment is doled out for criminal offenses and ensures that penalties are aligned with the degree of harm caused by the offender. In her recent response to Biden’s announcement, Sulton lamented how federal imposition sets D.C. back in achieving racial equity. 

“The District of Columbia’s criminal legal system is almost entirely Black (94% of felony convictions). To have non-Black lawmakers from out of state tell us we have to live with unclear, unconstitutional, and unenforceable laws dating back to our Slave Codes tells us we have a long way to go in 2023,” Sulton said. 

“The ‘tough-on-crime’ lawmakers from other states should understand that they just voted for D.C. to continue to have one of the worst criminal codes in the United States,” she added. “They should understand that the offense definitions and penalties in our current code — the code they are voting to keep–are absolutely absurd. And, they should know that they have just done a great disservice to victims of crime in the District of Columbia.”

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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