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

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the Council did not do a good job messaging the proposed laws that would have overhauled how the nation's capital prosecutes and punishes crime.

In an interview with FOX 5 Tuesday, Mendelson said he is pulling the bill back just before a U.S. Senate vote that seemed set to overturn the measure.

"In hindsight, the Council didn't do a good job messaging," Mendelson said. "You don't have the comparison sheet that shows where we are on different crimes with other states - or the comparison sheet that shows where this bill is in terms of what judges are actually doing."

Although Mendelson is pulling back the controversial rewrite of the capital city's criminal code, he did not concede that it is a bad bill. "What it's doing is saying - look, it's clear to us that the Congress is going to disapprove the legislation, so we're pulling it back, and we will look at it." He said changes could be made if necessary.

"It's clear that it can't go forward. That's why I pulled it back."

Congress reviews all newly passed D.C. laws under the Home Rule arrangement, and frequently alters or limits them through budget riders. But the criminal code rewrite seems set to be the first law since 1991 to be completely overturned. The measure to reject the law passed the House and faces a Senate vote this week.

President Joe Biden said last week he would sign a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking the criminal code revisions, according to people familiar with the matter.

The debate has been complicated by the fact that Washington's own Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, opposes the new criminal code. Bowser vetoed the measure in January but was overridden by the council.

In vetoing the revised criminal code, Bowser said she opposed provisions such as a reduction in the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking, robbery and other offenses.

"I think it's very easy for politicians to demagogue crime and say - you know, this is tough on crime, or this bill is weak on crime," Mendelson said.

"Let's look at one example, and that's carjacking," Mendelson told FOX 5. "Most states don't even have a separate offense for carjacking. This bill has a separate offense for it. The current law has a maximum penalty of 40 years. The average sentence is about 15 years. Judges don't sentence 40 years. What this bill does is it reduces the maximum penalty to 24 years. As i said, judges don't, the average sentence is 15 years."

Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty, one of the leading critics of the new criminal code, indicated that the vote to overturn will proceed as planned this week.

"Look at Tennessee, where Senator Haggerty's from. The maximum penalty for carjacking in Tennessee is 12 years," Mendelson continued. "But our bill is soft on crime with a maximum penalty of 24."

"It's because the rhetoric is we're reducing the penalty," he said. "Yeah, from 40 years to 24 years, which judges don't even sentence. Is that soft on crime? I would say no."

Mendelson continued saying that the reduced maximum penalties for different crimes still set the maximum far above the sentences chosen by the vast majority of judges around the country.

"It's tough talk to say, ‘I'm going to make the penalty for homicide – I'm going to have a mandatory minimum of 40 years,' when the reality is that U.S. attorneys typically plea bargain homicides to second degree in order to get a conviction."

He accused Republicans of using the criminal code bill in Congress to score points nationally against democrats on the issue of crime. He said even though he has pulled the bill, he believes Republicans will nonetheless hold a vote – which he calls a hollow vote.

Mendelson said he will consult with colleagues to see about moving the bill forward. "Given the messaging right now - it won't be soon."

The Associated Press contributed to this report