WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — In a unanimous vote, DC Council approved a massive overhaul of its criminal code, 16 years in the making.
DC’s criminal code was written in 1901 and has only ever been revised in piece-meal.
“Most states made this change (to their criminal code) decades ago, we’re really late to the game,” said Councilmember Charles Allen, who is chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “What you’ll see now in the courtroom, is much more transparency, much more clarity, much more certainty. And that will hold people who did wrong accountable.”
The Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, which passed its second and final council vote Tuesday, fixes outdated language, lays out proportional penalties and defines crimes in the District.
“So right now for example, simple assault, which is the most charged crime in DC, there is no definition in the criminal code for it,” said Allen. “(The code) had all kinds of contradicting and overlapping and outdated language that has also led to a lot of confusion for judges, for juries, for prosecutors, for victims, for survivors.”
Various organizations had a hand in the re-write including the criminal Code Reform Commission, the Office of Attorney General, the United States Attorney’s Office and more.
“We have a lot of absurdities in the existing law and a lot that revised criminal code fixes,” said Patrice Sulton with DC Justice Lab.
Still, Mayor Muriel Bowser expressed concern over the revision. In a letter sent to Chair Phil Mendelson, Bowser asked the council to pause on taking a second vote.
“I urge the council to pause, and bifurcate the provisions that have strong consensus, and move forward with those provisions only,” she wrote.
She also said she is concerned about the reduction of penalties for some serious crimes including illegal firearm use and carjacking.
“We should use this opportunity to strengthen, not weaken, our attention to prosecuting and holding people accountable for having and using guns illegally in our city,” said the Mayor.
However, Allen said the revision does not weaken penalties. Rather, he explained that it did away with “outlier” punishments rarely used by judges. And instead set penalties more in line with how judges actually punish people.
“No one agrees with everything in it,” said Allen. “But, they do recognize we have an outdated barely working criminal code that does not serve our city very well and this opportunity is one we have to take.”
An amendment proposed by Council Member Brooke Pinto, which aimed to increase the felony class level for some gun charges, did not pass Tuesday.
Next, the legislation will go to the Mayor for approval. She could veto it. If that happens, council could overturn the veto. It then goes to Congress for approval.
The new code will not go into effect until October of 2025, giving time for education of the public, law enforcement and more.