The Democratic Party’s moderate establishment has done it again. After it joined a right-wing fearmongering campaign against Washington, D.C.’s effort to update its over-100-year-old criminal codes, the D.C. City Council announced on Monday that it will withdraw the bill from consideration before it goes to the Senate.
In a letter addressed to Vice President Kamala Harris, who serves as chair of the Senate, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that the Council will rework the criminal code legislation, an unprecedented move in the council’s history.
President Biden last week announced his desire to overturn the policy changes proposed by the D.C. City Council. He did so despite having called the “denial of self-governance” in D.C. “an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded.” And Biden’s feeble decision opened up the door for even more Democrats to present themselves as equally cowardly:
“I’ll be voting the same way the president is,” said a senator elected to do more than just obediently follow marching orders—particularly ones that concede to misleading right-wing talking points. Citing “lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden attempted to justify both supposedly supporting D.C. statehood and home rule while expressing to the world his willingness to subvert D.C. home rule.
“The death knell has been cast by the President’s indication that he would veto the bill,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate to the House of Representatives, told The New Republic on Friday.
And Democratic operatives have been putting forth their best efforts to justify the ill-guided move. On Sunday, Lis Smith, former senior adviser for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, asserted that Biden “judged [the bill] on its merits,” claiming that subverting the will of local officials presumably concerned with the welfare of their residents would allow “Democrats to show we take the issue of crime seriously.”
It’s surely reasonable for Smith to suggest that we should not ignore the real-life impacts of crime on people. But it is not quite fair to deem Biden’s decision entirely merit-based, nor to concede to right-wing fearmongering about what the bill sought to do: The D.C. criminal code reforms were not some flippant package that simply weakened criminal penalties.
As Mark Joseph Stern at Slate explained, the rejection of updating a 122-year-old criminal code may “make it harder for prosecutors to charge violent crimes,” as the code is full of ambiguous definitions of crime and irregular sentencing proportions associated with those definitions.
Moreover, the criminal code reforms did not—as the right wing has claimed and moderates have foolishly parroted—haphazardly reduce criminal sentences. The council tasked with updating the criminal code (staffed by legal experts, including representatives from the D.C. attorney general’s and U.S. attorney’s offices) used data from a decade’s worth of cases to align the code with the kinds of penalties judges were already sentencing people to.
“The criminal code actually raises the penalties on some crime, but it lowers the penalties on others. It’s very experiential,” said Norton. “It looks at what, in fact, has happened. Remember, it’s a 100-year revision.… Democrats defected on this bill.”
Stern described some of these revisions that have been misrepresented. For instance, the reforms take the current code’s single broad robbery statute, carrying a 15-year maximum penalty, and adds much more nuance to it—dividing the crime into armed and unarmed robbery and into degreed offenses, to avoid over-prosecuting smaller crimes while raising the threshold of violent, armed robbery to a 20-year maximum. For carjacking, Biden’s explicit concern, the code carries a ridiculous 40-year maximum. Judges are already not actually imposing such long sentences for this charge, so the code revises the threshold to be a 24-year maximum (still longer than most sentences actually doled out).
The bill also updated the court’s ability to stack offenses like building blocks. While maximum sentences for various stand-alone offenses might’ve gone down, the new codes would have defined many more offenses, and degrees of them, enabling courts to put together more proportional sentences relative to the hodgepodge of narrowly defined sentences they have now. For instance, in cases related to carjackings that also have a violent component, sentences would follow accordingly.
“Apparently, a large number didn’t want to look at this time like they were supporting a revised criminal code which actually lowered the penalties on some crimes, even though it raised the penalties on others,” said Norton.
The D.C. City Council itself voted unanimously in support of the bill—and voted 12–1 to override Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of it. Nevertheless, Republicans pounced on the bill last month, leading a vote to nullify the reforms. Moderate Democrats (like Representative Elissa Slotkin, the Democratic Party’s heir-apparent Senate candidate in blue-trifecta Michigan) joined the charade to subvert D.C.’s autonomy. Despite being overridden by her town council (democratically, unlike what Congress is now doing), Bowser has pleaded with Congress not to subvert D.C.’s autonomy.
The Senate vote is still scheduled for Wednesday, despite Mendelson’s letter, and the public will see in full view which Democrats will vote against the updated codes and which ones will still have the guts to not play along in the charade. Again, the codes did not even shift funding from policing toward community-based programming; all they did was dust off old criminal codes and make prosecution easier. Still, we wait with bated breath to see which members will have the stones not to entertain the farce.
The whole nonsensical affair comes amid a larger movement by the Democratic establishment to gin up crime concerns in the lead-up to 2024; perhaps to parry away any primary challenge to Biden.
Democratic political consultant James Carville has sprouted back up to tell the media why crime is the “front and center issue,” as if Democrats ever fail to focus disproportionately on it. “Look what happened in Chicago,” Carville said to NBC News, apparently referencing the ousting of incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Carville’s comments seem to give credence to tough-on-crime conservative candidate Paul Vallas, while completely erasing the other top candidate who beat Lightfoot: Brandon Johnson, a teacher who has made public safety a priority while rejecting the “so-called toughness that politicians or insiders have just been recycling over the past 40 years.”
Such brazen erasure is unsurprising from the man who amplified Republican attacks against Senator John Fetterman as a “silver spoon socialist”; suggested Nancy Pelosi should just pick the Democratic nominee for president instead of having a primary (this was just days after Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg led the Iowa primaries); and whose career record includes backing and helping lead the strategies for the losing presidential candidacies of John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton in 2008, and Michael Bennet in 2020.
It is nearly three years since the murder of George Floyd spurred people of all backgrounds in this country into reflection, conversation, and even action. Democrats were given control of Congress and the White House just months after, as millions hoped for something, anything, that would indicate a genuine vision of public safety, of curtailing police brutality, and investing more directly in people.
But with the current leader of the party encouraging the rest of the Democrats to fall in line with a bad-faith Republican attack on D.C.’s autonomy, the conditions as they are now do not present a party willing to make that vision a reality.