Early this month, Rep. Henry Cuellar was carjacked by three armed criminals near the Washington Navy Yard. On Feb. 9, Rep. Angie Craig was punched in the face and assaulted by a career criminal in the elevator to her D.C. apartment building.
Mr. Cuellar and Ms. Craig are just two of the thousands victimized in our nation’s capital this year by criminals who should have been behind bars years ago.
Who’s to blame? The D.C. City Council.
The council passed a revised criminal code this past January of that was so radical that bipartisan majorities of both houses of Congress and even President Biden rejected it.
To those who had been paying attention to the process that created the code, its radicalism didn’t come as a surprise. Instead of focusing on accountability, community safety, and seeking justice, the council members driving the revisions instead obsessed over racial justice, “decarceration,” and supposed unfairness to criminal defendants.
It all started in 2016 when the D.C. City Council created the Criminal Code Reform Commission to be the clearinghouse for its effort to revise the criminal code. While its initial suggestions were relatively innocuous, its work quickly went off the rails. After almost five years of “studying” the issues, the commission held a two-day symposium in 2021 to feature their thinking and work. Available online, the panelists and their statements should be shocking to anyone who hears them.
The moderator of the first panel was Richard Schmechel, a former criminal defense attorney for the D.C. Public Defender Service and the author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” The panel included three former public defenders, a convicted murderer, and a liberal law professor. Their conversation focused on defendants and how the existing criminal code was unfair to them.
Tyrone Walker, the convicted murderer on the panel, complained that he was “directly impacted by these antiquated laws”—even though murder has always been a crime.
The second panel discussed sentencing and was no better.
Elana Suttenberg, a lobbyist for the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office said that her office “has some concerns regarding the recommendations as drafted.” The chief—and only—felony prosecutor’s office essentially objected to the reforms. But that didn’t matter to the commission.
At the same time, however, because the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office is part of Merrick Garland’s Justice Department, she toed the Biden administration party line and said it supported eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, knowing full well that D.C. Superior Court judges are notoriously light sentencers. By eliminating mandatory minimums, the Criminal Code Reform Commission and City Council were essentially giving judges the green light to be even more lenient with violent felons.
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, moderated the third panel, and opened it by stating that “we still lock up almost exclusively Black people and poor Black people,” suggesting that Blacks are locked up simply for being Black.
Halim Flowers, who works for Represent Justice, stated that convicting people who commit crimes “facilitates the perpetuation of slavery.”
Paul Butler, a law professor and author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” said that “we didn’t set, as much as I would have loved to, on this revision process to end White supremacy and patriarchy.”
Given the attitudes of the people behind D.C.’s revised criminal code, it is no wonder that the policy proved so radical and contentious. Personnel is policy, after all.
But just because the City Council failed does not mean that the criminal code in the District does not need to be reformed. It simply means that it should be reformed by other people—in this case, Congress.
This is serious business, and it must start by addressing the reality of crime in the nation’s capital. Such a preliminary analysis should, at the very least, take into consideration the following things: an evaluation of the number of violent crimes across the city; an evaluation of who is committing those crimes—particularly whether repeat offenders (recidivists) are committing them; an examination of how and why recidivism rates are so high in the District; an investigation into why the felony declination rate in the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office is abysmally high; a review of the actual sentences imposed by Superior Court judges; a comparison of those sentences with the actual time served; and a number of other recommendations that we have made.
In drafting a new code, Congress has the chance to show cities around the country how to take on crime with commonsense, bipartisan policies.
To start, members of Congress should revise and strengthen the sentencing scheme for violent crimes, including the reintroduction of mandatory minimums. They should also include sentences that add mandatory prison time (called “enhancements”) for the use of a gun in a crime, for injuring more than one person in one event, for prior convictions and for other contingencies that are already in place in many states.
Moreover, Congress should eliminate D.C. Superior Court judges’ discretion to grant probation for most violent felonies. Lawmakers should also consider instituting a three-strikes scheme that would impose a sentence of 25 years to life for conviction of a third qualifying felony. And finally, Congress should require juveniles who commit certain violent crimes (murder, armed robbery, armed carjacking, etc.) to be tried as adults.
These, and other common-sense laws would go a long way to reducing crime in America’s capital.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times