DC Withdraws Controversial Crime Bill After Biden Says He'd Kill It

Washington, D.C., police respond to a shooting (Getty Images)
March 6, 2023

The Washington, D.C., city council chairman announced Monday that the city would withdraw a controversial criminal code revision that would reduce penalties for offenses including illegal gun possession and carjacking. The council retreated from the reform days after President Joe Biden said if Congress passed a resolution overturning D.C.'s legislation he would sign it.

"Our position is the bill is not before Congress any longer," said council chairman Phil Mendelson (D.). He said the council would reassess the criminal code reform and consider changes to give it a greater chance of success under congressional review.

The council attracted controversy in January when it passed the reform, which would reduce the maximum sentence for a violent felon caught with an illegal gun from 15 years to just 4, even as D.C. in recent years has faced a rash of murders and carjackings.

Under the legislative process for D.C.'s council, legislation must be sent to the U.S. Congress for review before it can go into effect. The Republican-controlled House voted in February to overturn the law, and after several Democratic senators appeared likely to join Republicans in voting against it, Biden on Thursday said he would sign a congressional resolution killing the D.C. bill.

"I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections—such as lowering penalties for carjackings," Biden said. "If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did—I’ll sign it."

Despite Mendelson's announcement withdrawing the bill, the Senate is still expected to vote this week on the reform, a Senate aide told Punchbowl News. The aide said "the statute [does] not allow for a withdrawal of a transmission," and the Senate will vote on the House's resolution to overturn the bill.

Council member Charles Allen (D.), who spearheaded the criminal code reform, called Biden's announcement "an absolute travesty for statehood."

D.C. pushed the criminal reform as the city has faced skyrocketing crime over the last several years. Homicides in 2021 reached 226, more than double the 88 murders the city faced in 2012. The city has also seen high-profile crimes that have led to calls for tougher police enforcement—a candidate for city council had his car stolen at gunpoint, a doctor was murdered in March 2022 by a carjacker, an NFL rookie running back for the Commanders was shot in August during an attempted carjacking, and a gunman killed a transit worker at a Metro station last month.

During debate over the legislation in November, Allen rebuffed critics who said the council should be increasing penalties amid the spike in crime, saying he saw no evidence that doing so would reduce crime.

"I hear you saying we need to raise penalties to meet this moment, to send a message. But I ask you to show your work," Allen said. "At some point, this council needs to reckon with what it means to have one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the free world and yet endure this kind of violence."