Several District of Columbia elected officials reacted quickly and critically to President Joe Biden after he said he would sign a Republican-led resolution that would block D.C.’s revision of criminal sentencing laws from taking effect.
In doing so, President Biden would be allowing Congress to nullify D.C’s laws for the first time in more than three decades.
D.C. congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton called Biden’s decision “a sad day for D.C. home rule and D.C. residents’ right to self-governance.”
Biden later tweeted that while he supported statehood for D.C., “I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings.”
He added, “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”
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.
— President Biden (@POTUS) March 2, 2023
In a statement, D.C. Council member Charles Allen said the District of Columbia is “perfectly capable” of governing itself.
“We are not subjects, and we unequivocally reject anything less than full control of our own affairs,” wrote Allen. “We reject the oppression and paternalism of federal interference.”
Allen said the Revised Criminal Code Act “is badly needed legislation, passed unanimously twice by our duly elected legislature.”
In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the District, about a 10% drop after years of steady increases. Homicides in the city had risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003.
The crime legislation, which would take effect in 2025, created some friction within D.C. government. Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it in January, writing in a letter that she had “very significant concerns” about some of the bill’s proposals. She later proposed changes after the council overrode her veto.
Mayor Bowser spoke to WTOP on Friday afternoon saying, “We never encourage congressional meddling in the affairs of the District of Columbia.”
In regards to President Biden not vetoing the vote, “I think the President probably got the same message that there were a lot of Democratic Senators who weren’t looking to join the Republicans in treading on D.C., but to express concern about violent crime across the nation, not just in the District.”
Mayor Bowser also said she doesn’t think this will have any impact on D.C.’s future push for statehood.
“Let’s face it, we have a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, who have not been supportive or signed on for our statehood resolutions that have passed the House twice in recent years. So I think our focus has to be on continuing to protect our limited home rule, which is already an indignity that we live with each and every day,” she said.
D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb tweeted, “Any effort to overturn DC laws degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern — a right that almost every other American has.”
Any effort to overturn DC laws degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern—a right that almost every other American has.
As the city’s chief legal officer, I will continue to advocate for DC’s full autonomy and #Statehood. https://t.co/8y088uwfwh
— AG Brian Schwalb (@DCAttorneyGen) March 2, 2023
The District’s criminal code hasn’t been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901. Criminal justice experts have said it is outdated, confusing and not in touch with how crimes are punished today. In the nation’s capital, like most places in the U.S., Black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal laws.
The GOP effort is part of a growing political backlash against Democratic-led criminal justice changes that picked up pace after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Allen said the GOP resolution to block D.C.’s new criminal code “is not about the bill or what it actually does; this is about manufacturing ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric at our expense with the outcome of being stuck with an outdated criminal code that makes the District less safe and less fair.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.