How D.C.’s crime bill became a national issue

President Biden stands at a lectern with four tall American flags behind him.
President Biden speaks at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference at the Hyatt Recency on March 1 in Baltimore.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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In Washington, D.C., you can be fined up to $5 for driving a wagon on footways or playing ball in the street.

Wrongful possession of pepper spray or of a fully automatic weapon each carry the same maximum penalty — one year behind bars.

And threatening to kidnap or physically damage someone’s property can land you in prison for up to 20 years. Simple assault, meanwhile, could earn you nearly six months in jail.


These are among the many inconsistent sentencing requirements still in the district’s criminal code. But officials worked for more than16 years to reform it, and last year, city lawmakers voted unanimously to approve a bill that would revise and replace the outdated code. Though it faced opposition from local law enforcement and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, the bill was on track to become law. Then D.C.’s lack of statehood got in the way.

Bowser complained that the new code lowered maximum sentences for certain crimes, such as carjacking. National Republicans went further, pointing to the legislation as evidence that Democrats are soft on crime.

Then, President Biden surprised his party last week by saying he would support a GOP effort to block D.C. from giving its archaic criminal code a face-lift.

Why did Biden do this? What is this conflict really about?

Hello, my name is Erin B. Logan. I cover national politics for the L.A. Times. This week, we are going to discuss crime, political messaging, and D.C. and statehood.

Why is D.C. overhauling its criminal code?

Sixteen years ago, D.C. officials and advocates began the arduous process of revising the district’s criminal code. The code had not had a serious update since its codification in 1901. Prosecutors and judges instead relied on precedent to guide sentencing. To get much of this existing practice on the books, officials proposed a substantial overhaul.

The bill would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences. It would guarantee people accused of most misdemeanors the right to a trial by jury if they want one.

The measure would also increase the maximum penalties for some crimes. The maximum sentence for possessing a machine gun would jump from one year to four years, according to the Sentencing Project. The max sentence for attempted murder would increase from five years to 23.5. And people convicted of attempted sexual assault would face up to 15 years in prison, rather than five.

But the bill would also lower maximum penalties for some crimes. The max sentence for armed carjacking would from 40 years to 24. That change was especially controversial, and Bowser said it made the bill impossible for her to support.

Bowser vetoed the bill last year after the City Council voted unanimously to send it to her desk. The council later voted 12 to 1 to override her veto. If D.C. were a state, that veto override would be the end of the process. But D.C.’s lack of statehood required Council Chair Phil Mendelson to send the bill to Congress for its signoff.

That’s when the national political circus began.

Why the circus?

In February, 31 House Democrats voted with Republicans to override the district’s measure. Last week, Biden announced that he would not veto the resolution if it reached his desk.

Mendelson pulled back the criminal code legislation earlier this week to “keep our options open,” he told The Times.


A Senate aide told The Times that Mendelson’s move does not stop the chamber from considering the bill. Senators are expected to vote this week on the GOP-led resolution to kill the reform.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said Tuesday that he would vote alongside Republicans.

GOP Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee in a statement said that Mendelson pulling the bill back is a “desperate, made-up maneuver” with no legal standing. It “underscores the completely unserious way the DC Council has legislated,” he added.

Mendelson contends there is a lot of “misunderstanding about the bill.” Especially about the change to carjacking sentences.

Yes, the bill would drop the maximum sentencing for armed carjacking from 40 years to 24. In D.C., between, 2016 and 2020, the average sentence for armed carjacking was 15 years, the minimum sentence. And many states, including California, have lower maximum sentences for the same crime.

“There’s no harm in looking at some of the comments to see if we can either explain the situation or make some adjustments,” Mendelson said.


Mendelson said he was “disappointed” when Biden signaled he would not stop the bill. He also said that the president was “moving to protect Democrats.”

“This issue is really not about the crime,” he said. “This is Republicans trying to score points for campaign purposes against Democrats.”

“Many senators are eager to vote on this bill to demonstrate that they are ‘tough on crime,’” said Liz Komar, sentencing reform counsel at the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports D.C.’s criminal code reform. “A lot of election narratives in 2024 are focused around crime.”

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The latest from the campaign trail

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— Election officials in Florida, Missouri and West Virginia said Monday they are withdrawing from a bipartisan, multistate effort aimed at ensuring the accuracy of voter rolls that has found itself in the crosshairs of conspiracy theories fueled by Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 presidential election, the Associated Press reported.


— Over the last 11 months, someone created thousands of fake automated Twitter accounts — perhaps hundreds of thousands of them — to offer a stream of praise for former President Trump, the Associated Press reported.

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The view from Washington

— For decades, a lesser-known program for federal student loan recipients has allowed borrowers to assert a defense to repayment if a school misled them or broke state law. But under Biden, the Department of Education has ramped up processing borrower defense applications, overhauled the regulations governing the program and used it to cancel billions in debt for people who attended for-profit schools accused of defrauding students, Times writer Arit John reported.

— Texas Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales was censured Saturday in a rare move by his state party over his votes that included supporting new gun safety laws after the Uvalde school shooting in his district, the Associated Press reported. The Republican Party of Texas voted 57 to 5 with one abstention, underlining how the two-term congressman’s willingness to break with conservatives on key issues during his short time in office has caused GOP activists and some colleagues to bristle.

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The view from California

— Amid lingering concerns about surveillance and safety, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to accept the donation of a dog-like robot for the LAPD, Times writer Libor Jany reported. The controversial device would be paid for with a nearly $280,000 donation from the Los Angeles Police Foundation.

— In an attempt to counter GOP efforts to limit reproductive rights, Gov. Gavin Newsom said California will cut ties with Walgreens over the company’s decision to stop selling abortion medication in 20 Republican states, Times writer Taryn Luna reported. Newsom’s missive is the latest political maneuver from the governor in the national battle between red and blue states over abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision last summer.

— An L.A. County prosecutor on Monday was awarded $1.5 million in a retaliation lawsuit against Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who faces more than a dozen similar civil claims that could prove equally costly, Times writer James Queally reported. The verdict does not bode well for Gascón.


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