President Joe Biden speaks in the U.S. Capitol on March 2, 2023.

President Joe Biden speaks in the U.S. Capitol on March 2, 2023.

(Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

'Disgusting': Biden Embraces GOP Effort to Kill DC Criminal Justice Reforms

"The 700,000 people who live in D.C. know our community better than anyone else and deserve self-determination," said the ACLU of D.C.

Progressives expressed anger Thursday after U.S. President Joe Biden said that he would sign a Republican-authored resolution repealing criminal justice reforms recently approved by the elected leaders of the District of Columbia.

The GOP-controlled House claimed that the Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA), enacted in January by city council members representing D.C. residents, would make it easier for people convicted of crimes to avoid punishment and contribute to higher crime rates. Last month, 31 Democrats joined 219 Republicans in passing H.J.Res. 26, which would nullify the changes to Washington's criminal laws that are set to take effect in 2025.

Biden informed Democratic senators during a private meeting on Thursday that he will not veto the resolution if it reaches his desk, The Associated Pressreported. The measure is expected to pass the Senate on a bipartisan basis as early as next week.

"In the name of democracy and common sense, the Senate must respect the District of Columbia's decision to pass the Revised Criminal Code Act."

Later on Thursday, Biden tweeted: "I support D.C. statehood and home rule—but I don't support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor's objections—such as lowering penalties for carjackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did—I'll sign it."

Local lawmakers voted to decrease the district's maximum sentence for carjacking from the current 40 years—equivalent to the penalty for second-degree murder and over twice as long as the penalty for second-degree sexual assault—to 24 years, which is still nine years longer than the harshest carjacking sentences actually handed down in D.C.

Democratic D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had opposed the RCCA but supported a Biden veto of H.J.Res. 26 due to the implications for home rule.

Journalist Austin Ahlman called Biden's decision "disgusting." Defending "evidence-based tweaks to the D.C. criminal code" through a veto, Ahlman added, would have had little to no impact on the president during the 2024 election cycle.

Markus Batchelor, national political director at People for the American Way, also condemned Biden, juxtaposing his purported support for democracy abroad with his unwillingness to defend it "for those Americans closest to him."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in Congress, told reporters that Biden's position was "news to me, and I'm very disappointed in it."

Earlier this week, Holmes Norton thanked 100-plus organizations for signing a letter to Senate leadership that expresses opposition to congressional resolutions aimed at overturning legislation passed by democratically elected D.C. lawmakers.

"D.C. residents elect their own local officials to govern local affairs, like every other jurisdiction in the country," Holmes Norton said in a statement. "Congressional interference in local affairs is paternalistic, undemocratic, and violates the principle of self-governance."

Prior to Biden's announcement, the ACLU's D.C. chapter wrote on social media, "The 700,000 people who live in D.C. know our community better than anyone else and deserve self-determination."

The group linked to a recent piece written by policy director Damon King, who argued that "in the name of democracy and common sense, the Senate must respect the District of Columbia's decision to pass the Revised Criminal Code Act."

"In order to overturn our democratic will," King observed, "opponents of the RCCA have spread misinformation about the bill."

Shortly after the D.C. Council unanimously passed the RCCA and then overrode Bowser's veto of the bill by a margin of 12-1, Slate legal reporter Mark Joseph Stern wrote, "If you only read conservative and centrist pundits, you'd think the District of Columbia is about to embark upon a frightening experiment to weaken or abolish criminal penalties for violent crime."

As he explained:

Fox News has devoted frenzied coverage to the claim that D.C. is "softening" its criminal laws. Republican politicians like Sen. Tom Cotton [R-Ark.] have seized on the story, as have conservative commentators like Erick Erickson, who cited it as evidence that Congress should abolish self-governance in the district. The Washington Post editorial board opined that a new "crime bill could make the city more dangerous," claiming it would "tie the hands of police and prosecutors while overwhelming courts."

"This coverage all repeats the same two claims: that D.C. is poised to slash prison sentences for violent offenses, and that these reforms will lead to more crime," wrote Stern. "Neither of these claims is true."

He continued:

The legislation that D.C. passed in January is not a traditional reform bill, but the result of a 16-year process to overhaul a badly outdated, confusing, and often arbitrary criminal code. The revision's goal was to modernize the law by defining elements of each crime, eliminating overlap between offenses, establishing proportionate penalties, and removing archaic or unconstitutional provisions. Every single change is justified in meticulous reports that span thousands of pages. Each one was crafted with extensive public input and support from both D.C. and federal prosecutors. Eleventh-hour criticisms of the bill rest on misunderstandings, willful or otherwise, about its purpose and effect. They malign complex, technocratic updates as radical concessions to criminals. In many cases, criticisms rest on sheer legal illiteracy about how criminal sentencing actually works.

The D.C. bill is not a liberal wish list of soft-on-crime policies. It is an exhaustive and entirely mainstream blueprint for a more coherent and consistent legal system.

The RCCA is not the only piece of D.C. legislation the House voted to rescind last month. In addition, 42 Democrats joined 218 Republicans in passing H.J.Res. 24, which would nullify the Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act.

That measure, enacted last year by the D.C. Council, would allow noncitizens who meet residency and other requirements to vote in local races.

The bill's fate in the Senate, and whether Biden would veto a resolution seeking to overturn it, remains unclear.

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