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DC Council set to approve sweeping criminal justice reform

Revised Criminal Code Act changes the way defendants are charged with crimes, and how the convicted are sentenced in the District.

WASHINGTON — A historic overhaul of the criminal code system in Washington, D.C. took a critical step forward Friday. City leaders announced DC Council will vote on sweeping changes to the way defendants are charged with crimes, and how the convicted are sentenced in the District.

“D.C.’s criminal laws are a mess and literally decades and decades overdue for reform,” said DC Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6), Chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

Allen’s office said one analysis found D.C. ranked 45th in the nation for clarity, consistency, and completeness of its criminal code.

The announcement comes after years of work by D.C.’s Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC), which dates back to 2006. The CCRC was created to analyze the way crimes are prosecuted and sentenced in the District.

D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA) will expand the right to a jury trial for all misdemeanors with a penalty of prison time. Right now, most states have more jury trial rights than the District.

It will also rewrite and revamp the classes of crimes. Allen said a major shortcoming in the current criminal code is broad, vague language and penalties that leave the application of the law by prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and juries vulnerable to bias and inconsistency.

The reorganization into nine new felony and five new misdemeanor penalty classes proposed in the “Revised Criminal Code Act” will now clearly define and sort crimes into different levels of penalties based on the seriousness of the conduct, the facts of the case, and whether vulnerable persons, repeat offenders, or weapons were involved.

The penalty classes – of felonies from two to 45 years (not including additional penalties for enhancements) and misdemeanors from no imprisonment to one year – more closely reflect actual sentences given in Superior Court. The Committee's version of the bill will also enhance penalties for three serious crimes – carjacking, robbery, and burglary – beyond what was proposed by the CCRC.

The RCCA will eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences for crimes and will allow anyone who has been convicted of a crime and served at least 20 years in prison to apply for review of their sentence by a judge and possible release.

Right now, only those who committed their crime under age 25 have that right.

And it will continue to make the crime of carjacking a stand alone offense.

The Committee asked for carjacking to be classified as a form of robbery, which is the case in some other states.

There’s been 377 carjacking's in D.C. so far in 2022, 73% with a gun.

“I think when a Carjacking takes place, especially an armed carjacking, it is different than having your wallet stolen on the sidewalk,” Allen said, adding that the harm that can be done and the violence that is at risk makes it a standalone offense.

Those behind the changes say the inconsistencies in D.C.’s current criminal code system overwhelmingly hurt minorities. The full DC Council will vote on the overhaul of its criminal code system sometime in November and the plan is expected to pass.

Meanwhile, the work continues to find D.C.’s next Deputy Mayor for Public Safety after Christopher Geldart’s resignation last week.

Attorney General Karl Racine, said Geldart had a history of ineffective leadership, said Mayor Bowser should base Geldart’s replacement on “qualifications, not political connections” adding Bowser should “be quick but don’t hurry” in finding a replacement.

Racine said Deputy Mayor of Public Safety is critical to coordinating to the city’s violence prevention. Right now, Kevin Donohue is doing double duty, serving as interim head of Public Safety in addition to his role as City Administrator.

The Office of the City Administrator issued a statement to WUSA9, saying, “The District Government, like other organizations, has processes and procedures in place to ensure continuation of agency operations and functions. Every day, the Bowser Administration works closely with regional, federal, and community-based partners to move forward gun violence prevention strategies. This work centers around the needs of those most directly impacted by gun violence in our communities. That important work will continue uninterrupted.”

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