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DC Council votes 12-1 to override Mayor Bowser's veto of the revised criminal code

The D.C. Council is expected to vote on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, on a motion to override Mayor Bowser’s veto of the District’s Revised Criminal Code Act. (7News/Heather Graf){p}{/p}
The D.C. Council is expected to vote on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, on a motion to override Mayor Bowser’s veto of the District’s Revised Criminal Code Act. (7News/Heather Graf)

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D.C. Council voted 12-1 Tuesday to override Mayor Muriel Bowser's veto of the Revised Criminal Code Act.

Councilmember Trayon White was the only “no” vote. The council needed a two-thirds majority vote to override a mayoral veto.

The Council's full legislative meeting can be viewed below, with discussions about the Revised Criminal Code Act beginning about 40 minutes in:

Tuesday's vote to override the mayor's veto comes after several months of debate over the District's century-old Criminal code, along with years of work that went into developing the code revisions. It also comes as the District is grappling with growing concerns about gun violence.

Critics, including the mayor, have said the revised criminal code reduces penalties and prison time for some violent crimes involving a gun. Defenders of the code revisions say judges were seldom handing out the harshest sentences anyway, so the Criminal Code Commission set prison time close to what judges have been actually sentencing.

In November, council members voted unanimously in favor of the bill to revamp the criminal code. The mayor then vetoed the bill in early January.

RELATED | Mayor Bowser vetoes bill that revamps criminal code, DC Council could override veto

Bowser sent a letter on January 4 to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson stating her official veto of the Revised Criminal Code Act. The mayor specifically expressed concern that the revised criminal code would reduce penalties for some violent crimes, including gun offenses.

"Anytime there's a policy that reduces penalties, I think that sends the wrong message. That takes the focus off using guns or possessing guns, and I think that's the wrong way to go," Bowser said on Jan. 3.

ALSO READ | New chair of DC Council's public safety committee on gun violence, crime, & the year ahead

Bowser released this statement Tuesday following the Council's vote to override her veto:

"The Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 aims to rectify historic wrongs in our criminal code. However, by adding undebated and unvetted policies that would best be addressed through stand-alone legislation, it unfortunately falls short on meeting the moment we are in right now. We are living in unprecedented times, when our country is saturated with guns and it is far too easy for people who should not have access to a firearm to access one. As elected leaders, we must take the fear and trauma of gun violence seriously by ensuring our criminal justice system is fair and functional and supports our top priority: keeping our community safe. That's where my priority remains, and we will be sending legislation to the Council in the next 30 days that addresses the most concerning policies and weakened penalties included in the updated code."

During Tuesday's meeting, several councilmembers spoke about why they support the Revised Criminal Code Act.

"I'm here to vote in favor of the veto override," Councilmember Anita Bonds said prior to the vote. "I know that the revised code is not perfect, but it is a very good bill and the result of a very deliberate process."

Some councilmembers also had strong words regarding the mayor's veto.

"This veto is a distraction. The mayor knows the Council, which passed this unanimously, would override the veto. This is political theater to create a perpetual scapegoat when there are issues in the future," said Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he and the mayor "have been working well on a lot of issues", but voiced concern about Bowser's recent stance on the revised criminal code.

"It is irresponsible for the mayor to have characterized this as quote 'this bill does not make us safer' unquote. That is irresponsible rhetoric and it plays into folks like the Freedom Caucus in Congress who are going to use the mayor's veto and her rhetoric against us when this bill goes up to Congress," Mendelson said. "And that is a problem."

Mendelson is referring to the fact that all bills approved by the D.C. Council must go through a mandatory congressional review period. For revisions to the District's criminal code, that congressional review period is 60 days.

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie also took issue with the mayor's statement in her veto letter that "This bill does not make us safer".

"I say no, emphatically, it will not make our city less safe," McDuffie said. "And the people up here, that I talk to and I work with, are working to make our community safer."

Councilmembers Brooke Pinto and Charles Allen, the current and former chairs of the Council's public safety committee, also reiterated that changes outlined in the revised criminal code will not take effect until October of 2025.

They said that means there's still time to make changes to the code between now and then, in response to lingering concerns.

"There were pieces of the bill that I did not support," Pinto acknowledged. "However, allowing the mayor's veto to stand would be a significant step back in our work to modernize the criminal code.. As the new chairman of the judiciary and public safety committee, I fully intend to continue this important work to update and modernize our criminal code. The new law won't go into effect for another three years, during which I intend to fully explore whether additional amendments to the criminal code make sense."

Councilmember Trayon White did not speak during the meeting, but 7News asked him afterwards about why he voted not to override the mayor's veto.

"Laws are needed because we have to be governed by laws, but we have to also add meat to the bones, and that's typically what's missing in our city. That's the real reason I have a lot of differences with this bill," Councilmember White said after his "no" vote. "We have to put more emphasis on preventative measures and get people in the community to intervene and really address the issue of crime in our city."

7News asked White what provisions of the revised criminal code have concerned him.

"Well early on, before the bill was done, before the commission had finished its recommendations, I suggested to increase the number of offenses eligible for expungement, both felonies and misdemeanors, that not all got included in the bill. Some did," White said. "Also, I don't know, and we don't know, if decreasing the penalties for certain crimes is going to increase public safety."

7News also spoke to Councilmember Allen after the council's 12-1 vote to override the mayor's veto.

"What we have in our revised criminal code now, is one that makes sense, it's clear, it has order, it's proportionate, and it will help us hold bad actors accountable," Allen said. "It will be more fair to victims and survivors, and it will be more fair to those that stand accused."

Reaction to the Council's vote came quickly, with D.C. Police Union Chairman Greggory Pemberton issuing the following statement on Tuesday:

"The Mayor is the only elected official listening to District residents on crime and violence. This law, once enacted, will lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have. It’s reprehensible that the Council would smugly continue to support failed policies at the expense of the lives of our most vulnerable residents...every resident should be outraged that the Council has weakened the criminal justice system in a way that makes every neighborhood less safe. Their actions today are shameful.”

Read a copy of the D.C. Police Union's full statement here or below:

New D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb also issued a statement, calling passage of the revised criminal code act "a critical step toward improving public safety":

“The Council’s vote today culminates the process of bringing our criminal code into the modern era. Passage of the Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA) is a critical step towards improving public safety across the District and combating inequities that, for decades, have adversely affected so many in our city.

We know that locking more people up for longer periods of time does not make our community safer. The RCCA replaces decades-old approaches that do not work with fair, science-based reforms. Passage of the RCCA will enhance the clarity, credibility and confidence in our criminal justice system, ultimately making DC a safer place to live and work.

The Office of Attorney General (OAG) now looks forward to working with the Mayor, the Council, the Metropolitan Police Department, the Courts, the Public Defender Service and community stakeholders to make sure these long overdue reforms are implemented effectively and equitably.

OAG will work closely with federal and local partners to make sure we have the training and resources needed to effectively implement these reforms. We will also continue to advocate for meaningful self-governance and control over all aspects of our local criminal justice system so that D.C.’s elected officials have the ability to execute on comprehensive strategies to make our city safer.”

Next up for the Revised Criminal Code Act: that mandatory 60-day congressional review.

"I am concerned there will be some members of Congress who will try to make trouble with regard to this legislation," Mendelson told 7News. "We will see"

The Council must also now work on funding for the sweeping changes outlined in the bill.

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"So as we go into the budget process in the spring, that will be when we have a lot of implementation work to do," Allen said. "We've got to re-train police officers, the courts, the attorneys, so having that three-year on-ramp is important to make sure we get it right. But we're going to have to fund those different pieces."

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