Senate Blocks D.C. Crime Bill, Putting Statehood Debate Back in the News
Washington D.C.’s criminal code was enacted in 1901 and still includes prohibitions again “the playing of bandy and ‘shindy’ in the streets, the arson of one’s own steamboat and potentially even being a ‘common scold’ – a common law offense levied against those who quarreled with their neighbors.”
While updating the code, the D.C. Council changed jail sentences for carjackers from 15 to 40 years to up to 24 years, which angered some as being “soft on crime,” while others argued that the change brings D.C. in line with the rest of the country.
In D.C., the crime bill had a troubled passage. After a unanimous passage (13-0) in the D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the bill on Jan. 3, 2023, stating the bill “does not make us safer.” She also indicated concern that “the council substantially reduced penalties for robberies, carjackings and home invasion burglaries” in a letter to D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson. The council overrode the mayor’s veto, arguing “decades of dramatic increases in incarceration have not been a solution to rising crime.”
However, all D.C. bills are subject to Congressional approval. In 1973, the U.S. Congress passed the Home Rule Act, which allowed D.C. to elect a mayor and council to self-govern to some degree, though all legislation and the D.C. budget must still be approved (and can be denied) by Congress. Generally, there may be some debate, but Congress will not block the bill, allowing the legislation to go into effect.
The crime bill proved different. Within the Senate, everyone was largely in concurrence. Only 14 Senators voted against overturning the bill, and Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) voted “present.” Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) stated, “Congress is tasked with overseeing Washington, D.C.—a federal district where people should be safe to live and work. The district should set a nationwide example by enacting legislation that makes its residents and visitors safer—not less safe.” The U.S. Senate blocked the contentious Washington, D.C. crime bill on Mar. 8, 2023.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) argued, “The debate over the DC crime law has gone a bit off the rails. It lowers the carjacking maximum to 24 years, but that’s IN LINE with many states. And the bill INCREASES sentences for attempted murder, attempted sexual assault, misdemeanor sexual abuse and many other crimes.”
Amid the Senate debate, President Joe Biden tweeted: “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.” With Biden’s signature, the impending legislation will be the first time in over 30 years the federal government has overturned a Washington, D.C. bill.
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) noted, “If anything, this situation makes it even more important that DC gets statehood so that they can deal with these issues, take responsibility, and enact their laws.”
1. Should the U.S. Senate and President Biden have blocked the Washington, D.C. crime bill? Explain your answer(s).
2. Should Washington, D.C. be granted statehood? Why or why not?
3. Should other US jurisdictions, such as Puerto Rico, be granted statehood? Why or why not?
Joe Biden, twitter.com, Mar. 2, 2023
Council of the District of Columbia, “D.C. Home Rule,” dccouncil.us (accessed Mar. 13, 2023)
Clare Foran, Ali Zaslav and Ted Barrett, “Senate Votes to Block Controversial DC Crime Bill,” cnn.com, Mar. 8, 2023
LegiScan, “Bill Texts: DC B24-0416 | 2021-2022 | 24th Council.” legiscan.com (accessed Mar. 13, 2023)
Bryan Metzger, “These 14 Democratic Senators Broke with Biden and Voted against Striking Down the DC Criminal Code,” businessinsider.com, Mar. 8, 2023
Chris Stein, “A Crime Bill Was Supposed to Fix Washington DC’s Problems. Instead, It Polarized a City,” theguardian.com, Mar. 12, 2023