The Washington, D.C. City Council has sent a letter to the United States Senate to withdraw controversial legislation that raises questions about criminal justice reform and the US capital’s ability to govern itself.
The Senate was expected to vote against the bill this week, which includes a series of amendments to overhaul the city’s local penal code. The U.S. Constitution grants Congress oversight over the legislation of the capital.
“Clearly Congress intends to override that legislation,” Washington City Council Speaker Phil Mendelson told reporters at a press briefing on legislation Monday. “My letter – just as I send bills for their assessment – retracts the assessment.”
The city’s Democratic-led council approved the reforms in November.
Among the changes approved was the elimination or reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent crimes, a move that proponents hoped would help address issues such as mass incarceration and racial bias in the justice system.
But with crime becoming a critical election theme this year, congressional Republicans and some Democrats have criticized the reforms as evidence that the city is “soft on crime.”
At Monday’s news conference, Mendelson said that withdrawing the legislation “means the clock will stop” on any congressional consideration of the reforms.
“This will allow the board to work on the measure in light of congressional comments and resubmit it later,” he said. “I will say I don’t know that will stop Senate Republicans, but our position is that the bill is no longer with Congress.”
President Joe Biden had indicated last week that while he supports the “state-state and home-government of DC,” he would not intervene to stop Congress from overturning the city’s reforms.
“If the Senate votes to reverse what the DC Council did, I will sign it,” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
This would have allowed Congress to override a law in Washington, DC for the first time in more than 30 years.
Residents of Washington, DC, have no voting representation in Congress. They only elect a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.
However, Congress has jurisdiction over the district in “any and all cases”, allowing it to overturn local laws. These measures are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as a curb against the capital becoming too powerful.
But critics say the Democratic city residents have been effectively disenfranchised with more than 671,803 people calling Washington, D.C., home — a population larger than that of the states of Vermont and Wyoming.
However, the city’s criminal justice reforms, known as the revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, divided even at the local level.
On January 4, Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser announced she would veto the changes.
“A complete overhaul of our criminal code is a once-in-a-century opportunity. I believe it is more important to make good use of this opportunity than to add policies and weaken penalties in what should be a bill that makes DC safer,” she wrote on Twitter.
But the City Council overruled its veto, prompting Congress to introduce a so-called resolution of censure against the reforms.
The resolutions were led in the House by Republican Andrew Clyde of Georgia and in the Senate by Republicans John Boozman of Arkansas and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee.
“As violent, brutal crime becomes more prevalent in Washington, the last thing we should be doing is granting offenders clemency and adding more burdens to the district’s law enforcement,” Boozman said in a statement.
The House of Representatives had voted 250 to 173 in early February to block criminal justice reform, with 31 Democrats joining the Republican majority.
Senate Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, had also indicated their willingness to side with the Republicans where reforms would come to a vote in that chamber.