Pres. Biden says he will sign effort to override DC criminal code

President Joe Biden said Thursday he would sign a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking new District of Columbia laws that overhaul how the nation's capital prosecutes and punishes crime, according to people familiar with the matter.

City officials have spent nearly two decades trying to redo Washington's criminal laws, including redefining crimes, changing criminal justice policies and reworking how sentences should be handed down after convictions. The overhaul passed the D.C. Council late last year.

But the Republican-controlled House has decided to wade into city matters, claiming the district's changes will contribute to already-rising crime in Washington — the number of murders in 2021 was the highest in nearly 20 years — and make it easier for some criminals to get out of prison or evade punishment all together.

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

The resolution passed the House with some Democratic support and appears poised to clear Senate on a bipartisan basis as well, perhaps as early as next week.

Biden told Democratic senators in a private meeting that he will sign it, according to four people familiar with the matter. He then later confirmed his intentions to sign the resolution in a statement on Twitter.

His statement read in full:

"I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule – 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. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it."

In doing so, the president will allow Congress to nullify the city’s laws for the first time in more than three decades. Democrats will be abandoning a commitment to oppose the unusual rules governing the district that allow Congress to step in and the acquiescence comes despite their longtime push to grant statehood to the nation’s capital.

The GOP effort is part of a growing political backlash against Democratic-led criminal justice changes that picked up pace after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid this week for reelection as some of her Democratic challengers argued that the nation's third-largest city needed tough-on-crime policies.

Earlier Thursday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell cited crimes in his home state of Kentucky as he tried to blame Biden and Democrats for rising crime, including an incident two days ago when masked thieves stormed an auto showroom and drove off with a half dozen cars.

"Getting murderers off our streets and foreign poison out of our neighborhoods are among the most basic governing responsibilities you can possibly think of," McConnell added, a reference to the country’s fentanyl crisis. "Evidently the Biden administration does not agree or just cannot deliver."

READ MORE: DC Council fights back, urges Senate not to reject criminal code

Washington's criminal code hasn’t been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901. Criminal justice experts have said it is outdated, confusing and not in touch with how crimes are punished today. In the nation's capital, like most places in the United States, Black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal laws.

The revisions passed the D.C. Council late last year would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and expand jury trials for lower-level charges. The changes also would reduce the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery.

But the district is not a state, and because of that, it lacks the same rights that the 50 states have to make and amend laws. Also, district residents do not have voting members in Congress. While Congress has allowed the city’s residents some powers of "home rule," it has retained veto powers over district government actions.

House Republicans voted 250-173 to overturn the rewrite of the criminal code.

They have also acted to overturn a new D.C. law that would allow noncitizens the right to vote. Biden was expected to let that pass, too, though it did not come up during the discussion on Thursday, two of the officials said. It was not clear whether Biden would sign the voting resolution, which passed 260-173, or let it take effect without his veto or signature.

The crime legislation, which would take effect in 2025, created some friction within the district government. In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it, writing in a letter that she had "very significant concerns" about some of the bill’s proposals. She later proposed changes after the council overrode her veto.

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."

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

But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate in the House, said the criminal law overhaul was "extraordinarily important" and the result of years of work by lawmakers, criminal justice experts and nonprofits that deal with offenders.

"I really can’t understand why they are so controversial because the code, the new code, raises penalties on some crimes, but it lowers penalties on others. That’s based on experience," Norton said.

"And that should be lifted by the District of Columbia which has lived this experience, and that’s why we’re going to make sure that the president understands as the underlying basis for why this bill is so important to us."

But the issue is broader than simply about crime: D.C. officials say it’s a local matter and the federal government should keep out.

"The insult of limited home rule is that the 700,000 D.C. residents and taxpaying Americans, and their duly elected officials, must endure the review and oversight of our laws by officials not elected to represent our interests or values," Bowser wrote in a letter to Congress on Feb. 23.

While it has been more than three decades since Congress outright nullified a D.C. law, Congress has frequently used alternative methods to alter laws on issues from abortion funding to marijuana legalization.

In response to Biden's remarks Monica Hopkins, American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, Executive Director, said:

"President Biden's support to overturn the Revised Criminal Code Act undermines D.C.'s fight for statehood and maintaining home rule. The present-day criminal code in D.C. was created in 1901, an era before women or Black people even had the right to vote. In 2000, Brooklyn Law School professors ranked D.C.'s criminal code as one of the worst in the country based on how outdated, vague, and inconsistent it is. The RCCA was created after a decade-long process in which a nonpartisan Criminal Code Reform Commission and the D.C. Council held numerous public hearings and votes to pass the bill. This lack of clarity leads to judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys spending countless hours repeatedly negotiating the intent of the codes, convictions getting overturned because of the lack of clarity, and costly litigation that harms both defendants and victims. With the RCCA in place, police, district attorneys, public defenders, victims, and residents would have clear criminal codes that are realistic for D.C. and create a safer community.

"The disapproval of the RCCA stems from misinformation and lies that it would make the District less safe. Along with clear and consistent language, the bill would increase the penalty for attempted sexual assault from 5 years to 15 years, increase possession of firearm silencer or bump stock from 1 year to 2 years and create a now penalty for reckless endangerment with a firearm with a maximum sentence of 2 years, along with other changes. Yet, District residents' attempts to share the facts and the need for the RCCA went unheard in Congress, where D.C. residents don't have full representation.

"The 700,000 people of D.C. supposedly live in a representative democracy, yet they are routinely denied their basic right to self-governance because D.C. is not considered a state. While conversations about the need for statehood for D.C. can sometimes sound vague or theoretical, this current situation, with D.C.'s Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA) now in threat of being overturned, makes the harm of denying full citizenship to the people of D.C. loud and clear. The residents of D.C. must be allowed to update their own local laws, especially ones where there is needed clarity, consistency and uniformity to make D.C. safe."

DC Councilmember Charles Allen said in a statement: "Today is an unprecedented violation of America’s core principle of self-governance and the latest painful reminder that until the nearly 700,000 residents of the District of Columbia have full statehood and autonomy, we will be seen and treated as a colony, even by those who purport to support us. The District of Columbia is perfectly capable of governing itself. We are not subjects, and we unequivocally reject anything less than full control of our own affairs. 

"We reject the oppression and paternalism of federal interference. We reject the complete disregard for our legislative process and our values. The Revised Criminal Code Act is badly needed legislation, passed unanimously twice by our duly elected legislature. It is a comprehensive package of extensively debated and meticulously crafted legal reforms, developed over nearly two decades. But this is not about the bill or what it actually does; this is about manufacturing "tough on crime" rhetoric at our expense with the outcome of being stuck with an outdated criminal code that makes the District less safe and less fair. Defending those without power matters, and past pledges of support for DC Statehood couldn’t ring more hollow."

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton released the following statement upon learning that President Biden told Senate Democrats that he will not veto the disapproval resolution that would nullify the local D.C. Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA).

"Today has been a sad day for D.C. home rule and D.C. residents’ right to self-governance, which President Biden himself highlighted in his administration’s Statement of Administration Policy issued mere weeks ago," Norton said. "We had hoped that with more Senate support, we would have been able to ensure that neither disapproval resolution pending before the Senate would reach the president’s desk, but with the nationwide increase in crime, most senators do not want to be seen as supporting criminal justice reform."I will continue to do everything within my power to persuade the president that signing or failing to veto the resolution would empower the paternalistic, anti-democratic Republican opposition to the principle of local control over local affairs."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.