We could not be more disappointed that President Joe Biden has pledged to sign the disapproval resolution overturning the long overdue revision of the District of Columbia criminal code. It is especially troubling that, in the same tweet, Biden professes to believe in Statehood while at the same time supporting a measure that will overrule the work of the District’s duly elected officials.
This is the first time in 30 years that Congress has taken this step and the debate surrounding the bill is based on misinformation. Biden’s purported justification for supporting the disapproval resolution is that the penalty for serious crimes – like carjacking – is too lenient. Under the revised code carjacking carries a penalty of up to 24 years, which is far higher than the average sentence for carjacking currently being handed out by Superior Court Judges. The Criminal Code Revision Commission data shows that the carjacking penalties under the current law ranged up to a maximum 16.5 years. The revised criminal code creates a 24-year mandatory minimum for murder. This penalty is higher than the mandatory sentences in Texas (5 years); Alabama, Arkansas, and Montana (10 years); New York, Utah (15 years); Illinois, Kentucky, and Virginia (20 years).
It is hard to ignore that the debate around the disapproval resolution is racialized. Mitch McConnell’s claim of imposing “adult supervision” over a city that is majority people of color and with a Black mayor is thinly veiled racist code language, as is the image painted of the city as crime-ridden. The District has a gun violence problem to be sure, but it is no different than every other city in the nation who have complete local control. Moreover, the problem with guns is not one of the District’s making or too lenient criminal penalties. Blame gun violence on the Supreme Court in Heller and Bruen for making regulation of guns nearly impossible and the rise of income and wealth inequality.
The current criminal code is a mess and needs to be modernized. The revised criminal code was the result of years of work by all stakeholders and subject to extensive scrutiny by the District Council. The disapproval resolution will do nothing to create public safety, is based on misinformation and racial stereotyping, and sets back the cause of home rule. For many of us, the revised code remains far too harsh – but the revised code is fairer, rationalized, proportional, and the product of the local political process.