Overhaul of DC’s 120-year-old ‘mess’ of criminal laws presented to council

The process of overhauling D.C.’s criminal code finally goes before the D.C. Council for the first time next week.

The bill, known as the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, “reflects the culmination of more than 15 years of planning and hard work,” council member Charles Allen, of Ward 6, chair of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said at a news conference Friday.

“There hasn’t been a comprehensive rewrite or reorganization of our criminal laws since 1901,” when Congress wrote the code, said Allen, who will introduce the bill.

“Our criminal laws are a mess,” Allen added. “We have overlapping charges with inconsistent or missing definitions and elements, and we have outdated terminology. The punishments often don’t fit the crime. They’re unclear to everyone.”

That leads to judges having to work it out themselves, and Allen said that leads to a system that’s “inconsistent and arbitrary, and as a result is also open to bias. That bias and inconsistency undermines the public’s trust.”

The writing of the bill was done by the D.C. Criminal Code Reform Commission. Jinwoo Park, the executive director of the commission, called the reforms “long overdue,” and gave an example: Simple assault is the most commonly-charged crime in D.C. Superior Court, Park said, and yet there’s no simple, written definition of the offense.

“Does simple assault require actually inflicting bodily injury, or is some sort of … unwanted touching sufficient? Does simple assault require that the person intentionally inflict bodily injury? Or does accidental bodily injury suffice? These are core questions of policy and law that our current code simply does not resolve.”

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine pointed out that in 1901, women couldn’t vote and Black people weren’t “really freely able to meaningfully contribute to the legislative process.”

Adding to the code for 120 years, rather than starting from scratch, Racine said, resulted in a hodgepodge approach, which “tends to be reactive, emotional, and highly political, not evidence-based, not focused on fairness and justice. So this is really momentous.”

What does it do?

In a statement Friday, Allen’s office outlined some of the most important facets of the proposal:

An expansion of the right to demand a jury trial. By 2030, defendants would be able to demand jury trials for any charge that comes with a penalty of jail time. (Currently, it’s only for charges with a penalty of more than six months.) Allen said in the statement that under the current system, “for many common offenses which come with jail time, including cases which could result in deportation, defendants and victims have their cases heard before federally appointed judges, rather than juries that represent the diverse perspectives of District residents.”

A new system of penalties for all crimes, “based on the seriousness of the conduct, the facts of the case, and whether vulnerable persons, repeat offenders, or weapons were involved.” Allen’s office said the current system leaves too much to the discretion of judges and lawyers.

The penalties for carjacking, robbery and burglary would be enhanced, and carjacking and assault on a police officer would remain separate offenses (an earlier version of the bill would have folded carjacking into the robbery statute). There will also be different degrees of carjacking, Allen said.

The Second Look program, which currently allows people convicted of a crime committed when they were under 25 and have served 15 or more years to ask a judge to review their case “based on their rehabilitation during their incarceration,” would be expanded to everyone. Older adults, however, would have to wait 20 years before petitioning. The Second Look program, Allen’s office said, is “similar to other states’ functioning parole and clemency processes, which the District does not have.”

Most mandatory minimum sentences would be eliminated, although the minimum 24-year sentence for first-degree murder would remain. “Current mandatory minimum sentences are generally not based on the seriousness of the crime — for example, second-degree murder, most sex offenses and human trafficking offenses do not have mandatory minimum sentences today, while lower-level theft does,” Allen’s office said.

Allen said at the news conference that there was “a lot of agreement” among law enforcement about ending mandatory minimums, adding that “this was maybe surprising to some.”


The office of D.C. U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves said in a statement Friday that they have “serious concerns about a number of recommendations,” in the bill, but that they recommend that it move forward.

During testimony last December, Graves’ office detailed a number of problems they had with the bill, but on Friday they said the current version of the bill “addresses several of our most significant concerns.”

The office repeated in the statement that they continue to believe “some provisions, while well-intentioned, could undermine community safety and impede the administration of justice in our courts.”

But, they added, “the D.C. Criminal Code is in dire need of an update, and there is much in this bill that would help.”

Heather Pinckney, the head of D.C.’s Public Defender’s Office, also had reservations. “In the District, the criminal legal system, which is led by and fed into by other racist systems, is most singularly focused on the incarceration of Black residents,” she said Friday.

Still, Pinckney called the bill “a thoughtful and comprehensive legislative proposal.”

She added, “Supporting this code means supporting democracy, and having our elected officials decide what conduct constitutes a crime. Because currently … it is often left to D.C. appellate judges, appointed by the president and confirmed by the United States Senate, to decide what the law means.”

‘We need to get it right’

In an interview with WTOP, Allen emphasized what a different world the current criminal code was constituted in.

In 1901, there were only 45 states, Allen said, “We still had people who had owned slaves serving in Congress. That’s not who should determine what our criminal code is.”

“For decades,” Racine said at the news conference, “our criminal code was written in a confusing, conflicting manner, and it wasn’t always clear how sentencing for varying crimes worked. And that’s OK if the law is applied to somebody else. But in the criminal world, you have no idea whether you might be subject to that law, or someone you love. So we need to get it right.”

The first vote on the bill is scheduled for Oct. 21; Allen predicted a final vote would follow sometime in November.

WTOP’s Kyle Cooper contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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