The D.C. Council unanimously approved an overhaul of the city’s criminal code on Tuesday that would redefine crimes and penalties, as well as expand defendants’ rights to a jury trial.
If D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signs the proposed criminal code to council, it will be the first time district leaders have made such a change in more than 100 years.
Ward 6 councilor Charles Allen described the vote to change the code as “massive”.
“It is the product of countless meetings, serious collaboration, compromise and considered participation by a wide range of stakeholders, all of whom may disagree with a particular element of the overall package, but unanimously recommend that it be pushed forward, nonetheless,” Allen said.
Crime in D.C. has been a problem that lawmakers have grappled with for generations. But the district’s criminal code has not been fully updated since Congress wrote it in 1901.
“Many of our members of Congress in 1901 were ex-slave owners,” Allen said in October. “When we have a criminal code like that, it welcomes prejudice.” “We now have a disproportionate and outdated mess of criminal law.”
President Robert Conte also discusses gun violence involving youth, and the next D.C. Attorney General with News4’s Erika Gonzalez.
Ward 2 council member Brock Pinto proposed an amendment to the new criminal code that would increase the proposed maximum penalties for some weapons charges.
“I am deeply concerned about the proliferation of firearms and the increase in gun violence in our communities over the past year, as I know all of our colleagues,” Pinto said.
“We’re swimming in guns here in the District of Columbia, and we’re swimming in gun violence because of those guns,” said Mary Cheh, a Ward 3 council member. “Residents and children are being shot.”
Despite the support of the US Attorney General’s office, the House voted against the amendment by a vote of 10 to 3, saying that research showed that increasing penalties does not deter gun violence.
The Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Conte told News4 that while he supports some aspects of the new criminal law, he opposes reducing penalties for firearms offences.
“Anytime you talk about reducing penalties, the consequences associated with crimes that particularly affect members of society, I think that is just unacceptable,” Conte said.
He also previously expressed concerns about the additional training the officers would have to undergo.
“It means retraining every officer, police officer and federal officer,” Conte said.
Bowser said the action to change the law would place burdens on the courts, which are already overstretched.
“I’ve registered my objections,” Bowser told News4 while attending the metro’s grand opening for the second phase of the Silver Line. “I’m not sure what the final bill will look like, but we’ll definitely take a look at it.” .
The amended criminal code would allow people charged with misdemeanors who face prison time the ability to request a jury trial.
In a letter to Bowser, D.C. Chief Justice Josie Herring said the courts would have to call approximately 71,000 additional jurors each year in order to provide enough jurors for the expected 210 additional jury trials. The judge said it would cost the court system $394,000 to call the jurors, process and pay those jurors.
Some supporters of the new law said it would not be perfect, but it would make the law more just and fair while holding perpetrators accountable.
Allen, who oversees public safety, previously pointed to one law that’s still on the books.
“It is technically a criminal offense for children to play in the streets of the capital,” he said. “This is crazy. Our current criminal law is a mess.”
The reform would tackle crimes such as thefts.
“Basically (for now), you just have theft,” Allen said. “And what we will have under the amended law is that we will have armed and unarmed robbery, but of different degrees: first, second, third degree, which again helps the court, helps the victims, helps the defendants know the truth about the damage that occurred.”
While the US Attorney for the District of Columbia has expressed some concerns, he earlier issued a statement describing the changes as much needed.
The Criminal Law Reform Commission spent 16 years preparing and voting on the recommendations, according to Allen’s office.
If passed, the new law will be implemented in phases over three years, and will enter into full force in late 2025.