Biden Rejection of DC's Criminal Code Reforms Reminds Us of His Past Contributions to Mass Incarceration
Biden should have risen above the fray and promised to veto right-wing efforts to . Instead, he did the opposite—abandoning the people of DC and his own campaign promises to oppose mandatory minimum sentences and significantly reduce the prison population.
When President Biden announced he would not veto Congress' override of Washington, DC's Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA), he chose politics over public safety and DC's right to self-governance.
The RCCA is a 200+ page comprehensive modernization of DC's criminal code and the thoughtful product of 16 years of research, an expert commission, 51 public meetings, extensive public feedback, and robust negotiation.
It's a balanced bill: raising some penalties, lowering others, and correcting many legal flaws in a criminal code once ranked one of the worst in the country. That's why it was supported by prosecutors, victim advocates, public defenders, advocates, and 83% of District voters.
But opponents of criminal justice reform and home rule in Congress spread deliberate misinformation—for instance, in the words of Speaker McCarthy, that a bill that imposes a 24-year maximum sentence for carjacking somehow "decriminalizes" it—to politicize and block its passage.
President Biden should have risen above the fray and promised to veto those efforts. Instead, he did the opposite—abandoning the people of DC and his own campaign promises to oppose mandatory minimum sentences and significantly reduce the prison population.
As we mark 50 years since the onset of mass incarceration, it's time for President Biden to consider his legacy. Does he want to be remembered as someone who helped create mass incarceration or someone who helped end it?
Similar to the mistakes he made with the 1994 Crime Bill, President Biden's objections to the RCCA aren't rooted in serious discussion about sentencing policy.
During his campaign for president, he was criticized for his contributions to an American criminal justice system that prioritized prison construction and long sentences at the expense of community-based interventions that can reduce crime, like broadly accessible mental health services, drug treatment, and support for vulnerable children.
President Biden says he regrets sponsoring passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, which significantly contributed to America's explosive incarceration rate. His pledge to change his ways was applauded, but since taking office Biden has not kept his promises.
Under President Biden's watch, for the last two years, the federal prison population has begun to increase after impressive declines stemming from reforms enacted by his Democratic and Republican predecessors.
The District's new criminal code would have made DC a national leader in sentencing best practices and would have been a significant step toward racial equity by eliminating almost all mandatory minimums and providing proportionality in sentencing options.
The RCCA reflected what decades of research has shown: extreme sentences do not deter crime. They don't make us any safer, they are a massive waste of fiscal resources, and they disproportionately impact communities of color.
The RCCA didn't scale back excessive sentences to the extent that evidence would support, but it takes a step in the right direction.
We need common sense approaches that promote racial justice and prevent crime by investing in healthy, thriving communities instead of prisons and jails.
Similar to the mistakes he made with the 1994 Crime Bill, President Biden's objections to the RCCA aren't rooted in serious discussion about sentencing policy. Criminologists have long held that the severity of a punishment for any given offense, often unknown to people committing crime, is a weak deterrent of criminal behavior.
Rather, increasing the likelihood of being caught is more influential on decisions about criminal behavior.
President Biden's refusal to support DC's important update of its criminal laws ignores the overwhelming evidence that putting more and more people in prison for longer and longer periods does not make us safer. We've done that for decades and it doesn't work.
Instead, we need common sense approaches that promote racial justice and prevent crime by investing in healthy, thriving communities instead of prisons and jails. The people of DC overwhelmingly recognize that fact and that's why they support an updated criminal code based on what we know about public safety in the 21st century—not the outdated theories of a century ago.
As DC leaders revisit the RCCA, I urge President Biden to revisit the consequences of the 1994 Crime Bill and consider whether he wants the continuation of America's mass incarceration crisis to be a part of his legacy.