A crime against democracy
Nearly 700,000 Americans are residents of the District of Columbia. Should they, like all other Americans, have the right to govern themselves?
For some time, Joe Biden's answer has been a resounding "YES." As a candidate, Biden not only endorsed statehood for DC, but supported making an exception to the legislative filibuster to allow the Senate to approve statehood with 51 votes. In April 2021, the Biden administration enthusiastically announced its support for legislation making DC the 51st state. The statement said that "denial of self governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded."
The Administration strongly supports H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act. For far too long, the more than 700,000 people of Washington, D.C. have been deprived of full representation in the U.S. Congress. This taxation without representation and denial of self governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded. H.R. 51 rights this wrong by making Washington, D.C. a state and providing its residents with long overdue full representation in Congress, while maintaining a Federal District that will continue to serve as our Nation’s seat of government.
The statehood bill, of course, did not pass. And currently, Congress has the authority to pass a resolution overriding any legislation approved by the DC government. After the DC Council approved the first comprehensive overhaul of the city's criminal code since 1901 this January, Republicans in Congress introduced a resolution to reject the revisions.
The Biden administration issued a statement on February 6 saying it opposed the resolution. The administration maintained that the resolution was a "clear example of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood." Until DC becomes a state, the administration said, "Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs."
Less than a month later, everything changed. Biden abruptly announced that he now opposed the changes the DC council made to its criminal code and would sign the resolution introduced by Republicans to overturn the legislation.
What changed? Nothing in the DC legislation. There were some changes, however, to the national political dynamics. On February 28, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) lost her reelection bid. That defeat was attributed to "widespread dissatisfaction from voters over her handling of crime and policing" and reinforced an elite consensus that Democrats needed to be tougher on criminal justice issues to win elections.
It's unclear if this consensus is correct. In 2022, Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman faced a barrage of ads from his opponent in the Senate race, Republican Mehmet Oz, attacking Fetterman for supporting sentencing reform. Fetterman defended his record and refused to apologize. Fetterman beat Oz handily in a swing state.
Moreover, Biden's suggestion that the new DC criminal code would be lenient on carjacking and other crimes is, at best, misleading. And it echoes the false narratives pushed by Fox News that DC was seeking to "make carjacking easier."
Similarly, Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who introduced the resolution nullifying the changes, called the revisions to the code "disastrous," "dangerous," and "soft-on-crime."
But even if Biden and Hagerty were right about the changes to DC's criminal code, who should get to decide DC's local laws? The people of DC? Or politicians from Tennessee and Delaware?
The truth about the new DC criminal code
The purpose of the revisions to the DC criminal code was not to reduce the prison population or lessen the penalties for various crimes. It was to update a code that was written in 1901 and had never received a comprehensive update. DC's existing criminal laws are absurdly out of date. The DCist summarized where things stand:
D.C.’s criminal laws still reference steamboats, prohibit the playing of ball games in the street (specifically bandy and shinty, British variations of hockey), and require that livestock being transported through the city be given at least five hours of “rest, water, and feeding” if confined in a railroad car for more than 24 hours.
But there are also more serious consequences to relying on a criminal code that is more than 120 years old. Many offenses are poorly defined, overly broad, and do not include specific elements. For example, in the current DC criminal code kidnapping "carries a 30-year maximum sentence [and] could encompass giving someone an unforeseen hug." Simple assault, a common crime, is completely undefined. This ambiguity makes prosecuting crimes more difficult. As Mark Joseph Stern explains in Slate, "[p]rosecutors are less likely to bring charges when they aren’t sure what they’ll need to prove to secure a conviction."
The revised DC criminal code aims to solve these problems by creating specificity and proportionality. Under the current criminal code "there’s a single robbery statute with a maximum penalty of 15 years" which covers everything from "snatching a pizza from a delivery driver and refusing to pay" to "beating someone up so badly that they’re hospitalized." The revised statute creates three categories of robbery, from 3rd-degree which includes verbal threats and very minor injuries (maximum sentence of 2 years) to 1st-degree which covers life-threatening injuries (maximum sentence 14 years). If the robbery involves a weapon, another 20 years can be added on top of that 14 years.
So, yes, the revised code reduces the maximum penalty for certain kinds of robbery. But for more serious crimes, the total sentence imposed could be higher.
There is a similar approach to carjacking. Right now there is a single carjacking crime with a penalty that ranges from a minimum of seven years to a maximum of 21 years. That increases to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of 40 years if the perpetrator is armed. The revised statute creates "three gradations depending on severity, with the lowest penalties for an unarmed offense running from four to 18 years and the highest penalties for an armed offense ranging from 12 to 24 years."
So is DC code "lowering the penalties for carjacking" as Biden claims? As a practical matter, no. Although the current law allows for penalties of up to 40 years for carjacking "the harshest penalties handed down today run about 15 years." Judges will maintain the ability to impose that length of sentence for any carjacking. For the most serious offenses, judges can impose a sentence up to 9 years longer than the most severe sentences imposed today.
Judges do not impose 40-year sentences for carjacking because that is the "same penalty as second-degree murder, and more than double the penalty for second-degree sexual assault." Carjacking is a very serious crime but taking someone's car is not as serious as taking their life. The new code does not weaken the penalties for carjacking, but aligns them with reality.
Something you will not likely hear about on Fox News is that the revised criminal code also contains new offenses "including gun-related offenses (shooting a gun into the air, for example) and increased penalty for a range of sex offenses."
Do longer prison sentences deter crime?
According to opponents of the new criminal code, the proposed reforms will fuel a surge in crimes. Central to this argument is the idea that longer sentences are effective in reducing and deterring crime. But the data says otherwise.
Studies consistently show that longer prison sentences do not deter individuals from committing crimes. As researchers at the Department of Justice have pointed out, there is no scientific evidence that suggests increasing the severity of a punishment will make an individual convicted of a crime less likely to commit another offense in the future.
In fact, the opposite is true: longer sentences can create crime. “[I]n the aftermath of a prison sentence, especially a long one, someone is made more likely to commit a crime than he would have been otherwise,” David Roodman, an advisor for Open Philanthropy, concluded after reviewing numerous studies on the impacts of incarceration on crime.
Further, reducing prison sentences does not increase crime. “Between 2007 and 2017, 34 states reduced both imprisonment and crime rates simultaneously, showing clearly that reducing mass incarceration does not come at the cost of public safety,” a Brennan Center for Justice report found.
If anything, evidence strongly suggests that lengthy prison terms are “counterproductive for public safety” in more ways than one. Besides having no real deterrent effect on crime, long-term sentences also “divert resources from program and policy initiatives that hold the potential for greater impact on public safety.”
Additionally, while crime is a hot topic in DC and around the nation, violent crime in the nation’s capital is at historic lows, according to the most recent data available from the FBI’s Crime Data explorer. In 2022, data from the Washington DC police department revealed that violent crime went down by seven percent. So far in 2023, violent crime is already down another seven percent.