DC mayor, police chief urge council to slow down on criminal code rewrite

A D.C. Council committee is moving ahead with plans to debate and vote on a rewrite of the city’s criminal code, something that hasn’t been done in more than a century. There’s widespread agreement that it should be done, and nearly all of it is without controversy.

But Mayor Muriel Bowser and Police Chief Robert Contee III are pushing back hard on parts of the plan they don’t agree with, and say the council is rushing to beat an arbitrary deadline.

At a news conference Tuesday, the mayor said the concern is over the decriminalization of certain public nuisances, such as urinating in public or noise violations.

She’s also pushing back on two items which she views as policy changes instead of criminal code functions: an expansion of the Second Look Act and a provision to make all misdemeanor charges eligible for jury trials.

“The concept, we’re not opposed to,” said Bowser of the latter. “But we are opposed to placing that burden on our courts, which are experiencing a vacancy crisis — and one that we locally can’t change.”

Whereas states around the country can appoint their own judges to state courts, D.C. judges have to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

“Right now, we’re down 14 judges. They are already catching up on felony trials,” said Bowser. “We don’t expect that problem will go away in a year, two years, or three years. That will really gum up our criminal justice system.”

Council member Charles Allen, who is leading the criminal code rewrite, said he was willing and expecting to see the expansion of jury-eligible cases phased in, to which the mayor responded by asking again what the rush was.

Contee said he was concerned that some of the changes would make the city less safe, since certain offenses would be rewritten, and, in some cases, the penalties would be reduced.

“The requirement for Burglary 1 (first-degree burglary), which would be the highest grade of burglary, would require that a resident perceive that the person was inside of their home,” said Contee. “First, why are we shifting the burden to the resident in order to charge the highest penalty? You’ve been victimized.”

“Burglary 2, which is a lesser degree, does not require that you perceive, that you knew, the person broke into your house. … If you are asleep and you don’t wake up while the person is in your house, then that’s a lower grade, but if you wake up and you happen to see the person is in there, then that’s a higher degree of burglary? That just does not make sense to me.”

Contee also took aim at the wording that would affect robbery charges based in part on injuries.

“Most robberies that we see in our city don’t have significant injury,” said Contee. “… We should not be looking into the lens where the highest penalty is where a person sustained serious, or significant, bodily injury. The fact that you had a gun in your face is significant to me, and I think if you talk to most residents who have been victimized by a robbery, they will share the traumatic experience they’ve had.”

Bowser emphasized that her disagreements were simply part of the normal process of making policy. For his part, Contee said he only got a look at the revisions to the criminal code on Friday and has spent hours on the phone with Allen lobbying for changes, in some cases successfully.

“If it goes forward as is … there will be implications to community members, to our city as a result of that,” said Conte. “And I don’t think there’s going to be good implications as a result of that.”

“The 5% that we still have concerns about, those are serious concerns,” said Contee.

He urged District residents to read up on the provisions for themselves.

While the mayor and the police chief both argued for more time and debate before the changes move forward, Allen seems insistent on bringing it up for a vote in the council’s Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

He argued that there’s been “a lot of public discussion” and said that “it only gets better with the input that we’ve had so far,” added Allen. But he’s not entertaining any further delay.

“We’re moving towards a markup tomorrow and then it’ll move to the full council,” said Allen. “It’s had two years worth of time here in the council, and three public hearings.”

The mayor refused to say whether she would veto the criminal code rewrite if all of her concerns weren’t addressed.

“That’s not where we are right now,” said Bowser. “We’re still working on this.”

She added, “It’s more important to get this right than to do it quickly before the session ends.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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