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Biden Gives Green Light to Blocking D.C. Criminal Code Overhaul

A congressional attempt to block Washington, D.C.'s overhaul of its criminal sentencing laws gained momentum when President Biden said he would not veto the bill if it passes, even though he said he still supports D.C. statehood, the Washington Post reports. Taking a veto threat off the table is likely to influence more Democratic senators to join Republicans in the first successful effort by Congress to block a D.C. bill in more than 30 years. More than two dozen House Democrats joined Republicans to block the legislation last month. The broad bipartisan support signaled Senate Democrats could be expected to join Republicans as well. Republicans have taken aim at provisions in the bill that reduce maximum penalties for certain crimes — something that also concerned Mayor Muriel Bowser, who vetoed the bill before the council overrode her. The sentencing changes come at a time when D.C. is grappling with violent crime that remains higher than pre-pandemic levels and which led Bowser to argue that reducing certain maximum penalties could send the “wrong message.”

The major revisions to D.C.’s criminal code are the product of more than a decade of collaboration among prosecutors, defense attorneys and criminal justice researchers to update the century-old code and restructure how crimes are sentenced. Republicans have also seized on the revised code’s elimination of most mandatory minimum sentences, as well as the reduction of maximum penalties for many crimes such as robbery and burglary. But the criminal code also includes additional tools for prosecutors or judges to enhance penalties or “stack” charges to increase penalties, context that is often missing from the political debate — frustrating local officials and architects of the revised code who studied D.C. criminal sentencing patterns for years. Patrice Sulton, an attorney who advised on the Revised Criminal Code Act, called the effort to overturn it “the most dramatic illustration of D.C. voter disenfranchisement seen in a long time” and warned senators that overturning it that it would be a “disservice” to crime victims. D.C. has long been caught up in national political clashes, with Congress imposing restrictions on how D.C. spends its local funds to subsidize abortion or create a legal recreational marijuana market. But despite recent progress toward D.C. statehood, Democrats including President Barack Obama have historically been reticent to go out on a limb to fight for D.C. home rule if the political stakes get dicey — as appears to be the case now.


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