While Congress mulls a revamp of D.C.’s archaic criminal code, one of the bill’s most outspoken critics has a message for federal lawmakers during their review process: Justice for the victim matters, too.
In an interview with WTOP’s “DMV Download” podcast, D.C. police Chief Robert Contee said the pending 450-page overhaul comes bundled with measures he sees as impeding a victim’s pursuit for justice following a violent crime, including a reduction in maximum penalties for some offenses.
Contee’s views echoed similar comments from the U.S. Attorney for D.C. and Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose veto of the bill was overridden last month by a 12-1 council vote. Ward 8 Council member Trayon White was the only member voting in opposition.
“I’ve been very public about where I stand on that. Anytime we’re talking about lowering penalties for violent offenders who commit crimes in our city, that’s a non-starter for me,” Contee said. “Yes, I agree that the criminal code needs to be reformed … (but) the damage that’s done to people, the trauma that victims get exposed to, I don’t think that’s given enough weight through my lens.”
Following a 16-year effort to rewrite D.C.’s 122-year-old criminal code, the revision seeks to modernize criminal justice in the District by redefining offenses, adjusting penalties and codifying new crimes that the framers of the original rules didn’t — or couldn’t — envision. In many cases, the new code introduces tiered sets of “penalty enhancements” that increase the possible sentence for violent or destructive crimes, such as use of a weapon and property damage.
The original statutes have been tweaked piecemeal over the years, but the rewrite paints with a broad brush and seeks to alleviate long-running complaints from community members, city leaders and the judiciary alike about the extant code being clunky, inconsistent and confusing.
While officials, including Bowser and Contee, have largely been supportive of the need to reform the code, the issue of lowering maximum penalties for some crimes — including carjacking, illegal firearm possession and robbery — has garnered friction amid a recent rise in gun violence and homicide rates, especially among youth.
“Anytime there is a policy that reduces penalties, I think it sends the wrong message,” Bowser said in January, having campaigned for a third term promising that any policy change would be public safety-driven and supportive of residents who fall victim to a crime.
Bowser has also said she worries the revision’s expansion of jury trial rights to include misdemeanor cases would impart an unmanageable burden on the courts.
The bill’s supporters counter that maximum penalties are rarely issued and that the revisions better align with the average sentences given out for violent crimes. For one, supporters say the average penalty for armed carjacking is 15 years, according to data from the D.C. Sentencing Commission. That is less than half of the current longest penalty of four decades for that count.
Contee, however, told WTOP’s Luke Garrett that he had recently heard from residents concerned that the act of lowering penalties would signal possible offenders to take their crime less seriously. In Contee’s view, the penalty reforms unevenly benefit the suspect in a violent offense compared to the victim.
“Where’s the victim in all of this? Who does this actually help? Is the victim being helped, or is it the person who victimizes?” Contee said. “I don’t think victims win in that space. And again, that’s a non-starter for me.”
Asked what his message would be for members of Congress and the Biden administration during the bill’s review process, Contee repeated his stance that alterations to penalties need to be weighed against a victim’s need for justice.
“Review it through the lens of you being a victim,” Contee said. “Would you be satisfied with the outcome if you were the person on the receiving end of that crime? If your loved one was the person on the receiving end? When you are very close to that pain, it feels a whole heck of a lot different than when you are removed from that.”
Council member Brooke Pinto, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, argues that concerns over the bill leading to lesser sentences are exaggerated, especially given the penalty enhancements assigned for violent crimes.
Moreover, the new code wouldn’t take effect until October 2025. Pinto, who backed the vote to overturn Bowser’s veto, has suggested that the next two years could be spent reviewing sentencing proposals, addressing concerns and making changes as needed, in lieu of torpedoing the whole effort.
“Victims of carjackings deserve for their cases and their trauma to be taken seriously and for justice to be served. That is why the revised criminal code allows for sentences of up to 24 years for carjackings — a very serious sentence for a very serious offense,” Pinto said, noting that the new maximum of 24 years for carjacking still represents a longer time span than 97.5% of current sentences.
“The idea that the criminal code revisions will lead to lesser sentences just does not align with the facts,” Pinto added. “I will continue working with Chief Contee on interventions to address the terrible scourge of carjackings. The last thing we need is more residents arming themselves with guns.”
Like all laws approved by the D.C. Council, the revised criminal code is subject to a 60-day review window in Congress, during which the House, now with a Republican majority, can make alterations or overrule a bill altogether.
WTOP’s Luke Garrett contributed to this report.