D.C. Jail (Courtesy of dc.gov)
D.C. Jail (Courtesy of dc.gov)

Sixteen years of planning and nearly 20 hours of council hearings culminated in The D.C. Council Committee of the Judiciary and Public Safety’s approval of a bill that revamps D.C.’s criminal code for the first time in more than a century. 

As the Revised Criminal Code Act continues along a path for eventual deliberation before the entire D.C. Council, some legislators, like D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) remains confident that it reflects modern values, more so than what’s currently on the books. 

“The code we have today is the one that you get when you rely solely on the whims of elected bodies at any moment to be reactionary,” Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said on Wednesday for all members of the committee approved the marked-up legislation. 

“It’s what happens when legislative bodies set penalties in isolation and without regard to how they contribute and undermine a large…code and reinforce racial inequities.” 

If approved by the D.C. Council, the Revised Criminal Code will take effect in October 2025 with some aspects of the law falling in place by 2030. The committee vote, originally scheduled for last week, had been postponed to allow for acquisition of documents from the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer. 

Last year, the D.C. Council received the proposed legislation, composed of recommendations by the Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC)  to modernize a criminal code that had been in place since 1901.

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. 

The D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety had since revised portions of the legislation. For example, inmates who were convicted of their crimes at the age of 25 and older would have to wait 20 years, instead of 15 as originally intended, before seeking resentencing through the Second Look Act. 

In the marked-up legislation, carjacking stands as its own crime while violent crimes involving firearms receive higher maximum penalties. For first-degree murder, the mandatory minimum sentence of 24 years  would still remain in place. The Metropolitan Police Department would also be able to respond to nuisance crimes. 

Finally, local courts could phase in jury trials for misdemeanors over the course of eight years. 

In the days preceding the committee vote, 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.  

Many advocates, including Makia Green, demanded that District officials change course on matters directly affecting Black residents. 

“Years and time was put into writing a new criminal code proposal [but] the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety took out the pieces for political expediency,”  said Green, a member of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams. 

“We know the original proposal to revise the criminal code included these four provisions,” she added. “They were put there on purpose by people who spend day in and day out with people in the system and see where our people slip through the cracks.” 

Findings suggested that the District’s laws lacked consistency, clarity and completeness when compared to at least 40 states. 

CCRC includes an advisory group representing the Office of the Attorney General, the Public Defender Service and local law school professors. For years, this entity analyzed elements of crime and compared language, operations and laws in the District to other jurisdictions while collecting feedback. 

However, some people, like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said more could’ve been done in that arena. 

During the Mayor-Council Breakfast on Tuesday, Bowser expressed her apprehension about passing the Revised Criminal Code Act without direct community input. She also decried aspects of the legislation, such as jury trials for misdemeanors and the decriminalization of public nuisances, as threats to public safety. 

In regard to the latter, Bowser said that citations, and nothing more, for public drinking, public urination and noise at night do little to prevent violence in heavily populated nightlife areas. 

Meanwhile,  advocates, including Patrice Sulton, have worked around the clock to dispel what had been described as the myths about the Revised Criminal Code Act. 

Flyers that have been circulated by the DC Justice Lab challenge the notion that people wouldn’t be penalized for spitting on others, urinating in public or carjacking. Meanwhile, Sulton, executive director of DC Justice Lab, continues to write members of the D.C. Council Committee of the Judiciary and Public Safety in the hopes that they would take heed to what the experts propose.  

“It is unfortunate that experts and concerned citizens who have had the proposed bill since March 31, 2021, were given only 24 hours to read and weigh in on such consequential changes,” Sulton said in a letter on Tuesday.  

“Some of the proposed amendments were not even mentioned during the press conference 10 days ago, including the complete removal of the revised rioting statute and the insertion of new public order offenses,” she added. 

“These major changes undermine more than 16 years of research, devalue the express[ed] desires and interests of District residents, and make a mess of the revised statutes.”

@SamPKCollins

Did you like this story?
Would you like to receive articles like this in your inbox? Free!

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...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *