Washington, D.C. – US President Joe Biden has angered progressives by promising not to block a congressional measure that would overturn a criminal justice reform bill in Washington, DC.
Biden’s decision, announced Thursday, sparked discussions on two separate topics: Washington’s right to self-government and the emergence of public safety as a critical issue in current US politics.
Earlier this year, the Washington City Council passed a bill that would reduce some sentences and remove mandatory minimums for certain crimes, measures that supporters say are designed to modernize the city’s penal code.
But since Washington is the seat of the federal government, the US Congress has the power to block local laws in the Democratic-led district. It quickly intervened, with Republicans invoking the law to label Democrats as “soft on crime.”
The U.S. House of Representatives last month passed a bill to nullify the D.C. bill, with 31 mostly conservative Democrats joining Republicans in passing the measure. The Senate will pass and likely pass legislation next week, with some Democrats expected to rejoin Republicans.
The White House initially opposed Congress’ efforts to overturn local law in D.C., calling on lawmakers to “respect the autonomy of the District of Columbia to manage its own local affairs.”
But Biden reversed this week, saying he would not veto the Republican-led bill.
“I support DC Statehood and self-government – but I do not support some of the changes DC Council has brought forward over the mayor’s objections – such as lowering carjacking penalties,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “If the Senate votes to overturn what DC Council did, I will sign it.”
Rise in crime
Washington, like several other major cities across the country, has witnessed a surge in violent crime in recent years, with homicides and car thefts rising since the outbreak of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
For example, the district saw 203 homicides in 2022, down slightly from the previous year but well above 2019 levels, when 166 people died in the city.
Carjacking has also been a problem for DC residents. According to police data, there have been 1,182 motor vehicle thefts this year, an increase of 111 percent from the same time in 2022.
But the proponents of the DC criminal justice reform measure called the Revised Criminal Code Act argue that the law merely updates an outdated system that has not been revised in more than 100 years.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser blocked the bill, but the City Council overrode her veto in a 12-to-1 vote in January.
The local bill would remove mandatory minimum sentences for many offenses while also capping maximum sentences. Civil rights advocates have long argued that mandatory minimums contribute to prison overcrowding and exacerbate racial bias in the American justice system.
Still, Republicans used the DC law, due to go into effect in 2025, to emphasize their support for tougher criminal penalties.
“The modern Democratic Party and its coalitions have decided that it is more important to have compassion for serial violent felons than for innocent civilians who just want to live their lives,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this week. .
Republicans have put public safety at the center of their pitch to voters, often accusing Democrats of loosening criminal penalties and not supporting law enforcement agencies enough.
In local elections in Chicago, San Francisco and New York over the past two years, voters have favored politicians seen as tough on crime.
Progressives say the answer to public safety concerns is more investment in communities, youth programs and education, not harsher prison sentences, suggesting conservative states have also seen an increase in crime.
Beyond the content of the D.C. bill, Biden’s move has irked many self-government supporters in Washington, home to more than 700,000 residents, most of whom are people of color. The city is the only place in the US without congressional representation.
Seats in the United States Senate and House of Representatives are allocated to states. But the country’s founders refused to make DC a state, fearing the district would become too powerful.
Washington has a mayor and city council that manage municipal affairs, but Congress has the power to overturn local laws in the district.
Signs bemoaning “taxation without representation” and calling for statehood are not an uncommon sight in the city. Washington has a larger population than the states of Wyoming and Vermont. But recent efforts to make the district statehood have met with Republican opposition.
The city is deeply liberal. Biden won more than 93 percent of the vote in D.C. against his predecessor Donald Trump in the 2020 election. DC’s status would almost certainly translate into two more Senate seats and one House member for the Democrats.
In 2020 and 2021, the House voted to make DC the 51st U.S. state, but the push was stalled in the Senate, where a legislative process known as the filibuster requires 60 votes before major legislation passes in the 100-member chamber.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s non-voting delegate to Congress, expressed disappointment with Biden’s position on Thursday.
“Today was a sad day for DC self-government and the right of the people of DC, which President Biden himself emphasized in his administration’s policy statement issued just weeks ago,” Norton said in a statement.