Explaining D.C.'s criminal code: how we got here & what's next

Washington D.C.'s criminal code has made national headlines for weeks. But, what exactly is the criminal code, and what will change in the District after Wednesday's vote on Capitol Hill?

What is D.C.'s criminal code?

The criminal code defines crimes in the District and how sentences should be handed down after convictions. An overhaul of D.C.'s criminal code was approved late last year by D.C. Council.

D.C.'s criminal code hasn't been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901. The proposed overhaul bill would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and reduce the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery.

The bill calls for a right to a trial by jury – as opposed to a bench trial decided only by a judge – for any offense bearing a penalty of more than 60 days in jail, which covers most misdemeanors.

Criminal justice experts say that Black people have been disproportionately affected by the criminal laws, similar to many other cities.

In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the district, about a 10% drop after years of steady increases. Homicides in the city had risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003. The city’s police union said in a statement that changes would "lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have."

What has the timeline been for the overhaul bill?

D.C. Council has been working towards an overhaul of D.C.'s criminal code for years. The council gave final approval for the criminal code overhaul in November 2022 despite objections from several high-ranking officials, including Mayor Muriel Bowser. 

Mayor Bowser and DC Police Chief Robert Contee both expressed concern about the weakening of penalties. 

"If we’re reducing a sentence from ten years down to five years, that makes the city less safe," Contee said in October.

In January, Mayor Bowser vetoed the overhaul bill.

"None of us can be satisfied with young people using weapons and killing each other," Bowser said during the press conference. "We’re also very concerned that the courts [won't] have the resources to keep up with the law… What this law would suggest is that the number of trials would skyrocket. So, we have concerns about all that."

READ MORE: Mayor Bowser proposes changes to DC's controversial criminal code

A few weeks later, D.C. Council voted to override Mayor Bowser's veto, officially approving the overhaul bill. The bill then headed to Capitol Hill for congressional approval.

Congress reviews all legislation passed by the Council before it can become law, thanks to the 1970s-era Home Rule Act.

The U.S. House took up the resolution of disapproval last month and voted 250-173 to overturn the D.C. criminal code revisions, with 31 Democrats voting with Republicans. Though Congress has imposed various limits on D.C. through spending bills over the years, the formal disapproval process hasn’t been used since 1991.

READ MORE: House votes to repeal update to DC's criminal code

The White House did not explicitly say that President Joe Biden would veto the measure. But the statement said the White House opposed it and that the resolution is an example "of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood. While we work towards making Washington, D.C. the 51st state of our Union, Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs."

President Biden then pivoted on a visit to a Democratic caucus luncheon last week, declaring that he would sign the GOP resolution if it reached his desk.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced the withdrawal of the law this week in a last-ditch effort to thwart the Senate vote. But Democrats said the vote was on the House disapproval resolution, not the council’s original transmission to the Senate.

READ MORE: Mendelson says DC Council didn't do adequate job messaging criminal code bill

The disapproval resolution was approved by the Senate on Wednesday. The bill now heads to President Biden's desk.

What happens next?

Biden’s support appeared to win over the majority of his party’s Senate caucus — many of whom pointed out that Mayor Bowser had opposed it.

Biden later tweeted that he supports D.C. statehood, but "I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings."

Now that the Senate has voted to disapprove the criminal code, the resolution will head to President Biden's desk and is expected to be signed.

Once the resolution is in place, the District will operate as if the council never voted to approve the new code. D.C. will continue to operate under the 100-year-old criminal code.

READ MORE: Senate to vote on controversial DC criminal code Wednesday

The council will then decide whether it's strategic to immediately pivot to potential amendments or wait for the debate to cool off before revisiting the hot-button issues. 

Nothing in the Home Rule Act, FOX 5's Katie Barlow reports, prevents the council from resubmitting the code – in its current form or with amendments – to Congress at any time. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.