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DC Superior Court down 14 judges as council moves forward with rewrite of criminal code that could impact courts

The mayor and police chief say some provisions will not make our streets safer and overburden the court system.

WASHINGTON — Our streets and our courts in the District are in crisis, and while DC Police and District leaders are working to stop the violence, they point out that the court system -- which could keep criminals off the streets -- is stretched thin. 

According to DC Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring, the court is down 14 judges with an anticipated vacancy of 20 next year. 

DC Police released numbers showing a 7% drop in homicides (166) and a 15% decline in assaults with a dangerous weapon (1,170) so far this year. However, the impact of shootings is felt in nearly every neighborhood in the city, by business owners, neighbors and parents who are dodging bullets and rushing children to the hospital. A 4-year-old and a 13-year-old were shot Monday evening. Both are expected to recover from their injuries.  

Josey-Herring said as the city council considers revising DC’s criminal code, one provision could have an “extensive impact” on the courts.

While some vacancies are due to retirements, the national problem is exacerbated here in the District, where the White House must nominate judges and the Senate must approve them. The Mayor and City Council members said they are lobbying the White House and Senate leaders but don’t anticipate a solution to this problem for the next three-to-four years.

“We’re talking about updating D.C.’s criminal code for the first time in 120 years,” said Councilmember Charles Allen chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

During a breakfast meeting at MLK Library Tuesday, Councilmember Allen told the Mayor and her top leaders that the council is poised to move forward with a markup Wednesday and then a vote on legislation rewriting the code. Many stakeholders agree the current code is in desperate need of updating, but Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Police Chief Robert Contee said they opposed about 5% of the measures they believe would not make our city safer.  

“This is how policy is made,” said Mayor Bowser, “this is part of the process, and we fundamentally disagree with some of the approaches here and it's our job to let the community know what tools we need to keep the city safe."

One provision the Mayor and police chief oppose calls for jury trials for misdemeanor offenses by 2030.

“We are opposed to placing the burden on our courts which are facing a vacancy crisis,” said Bowser.

Councilmember Allen recognizes the courts are short-staffed and said that’s why they amended the plan to phase in the jury trials. 

“It's also important people have a right to a jury,” countered Councilmember Allen. “D.C. is an extreme outlier in this; it's us and nine other states, where people don't even have a right to a jury. That was something that got taken away in the 1990s and we got to make sure we return the right to a jury trial and work with the courts.”

Also at issue are provisions that would decriminalize public nuisances like noise at night and drinking or urinating in public and removing most mandatory minimum sentences giving more people serving long sentences an opportunity to petition for release. 

“I don't think public safety or how people feel was part of the assessment,” said Chief Contee. “I think as a District of Columbia resident, a kid born in this city, my parents are still here and lots of loved ones are here, I want to make sure that it's reviewed through that lens by everybody.”

The bill rewriting the criminal code is 450 pages and that's why the Mayor and Chief believe the Council should not rush to pass this legislation, but rather “get it right” by allowing more people, including ANC Commissioners and community leaders, an opportunity to digest and fully understand what’s at stake.

Councilmember Allen said this has been in the works for two years, with plenty of public hearings.  He said the council is moving forward with the committee markup Wednesday and then a vote in the full council. The measure must go to the Mayor’s office for approval.   

RELATED: DC Council set to approve sweeping criminal justice reform

RELATED: 4-year-old boy shot during violent night in DC

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