It was the tweet heard ‘round the nation’s Capital. This month, President Biden did something that seemed to contradict his official support for the D.C. statehood movement: he came out against a new criminal code passed by the District’s City Council. And in doing so, he appeared to choose between two competing interests: the political need to demonstrate toughness on crime, and his long-standing allegiance to the city that he has worked in since 1973.
“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule—but 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 tweeted. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did—I’ll sign it.”
First, a little context: D.C.’s new criminal code, which the City Council passed unanimously despite the opposition of the mayor, lowered mandatory minimum sentences for some violent offenses and expanded jury trials for all misdemeanors, not just those that carry a prison sentence of 180 days or more. But it also included swaths of nuts-and-bolts reforms that local elected officials had been trying to implement for over a decade. The modernized criminal code was the result of a 16-year process aimed at eliminating overlap between offenses, defining the elements of each crime, instituting appropriate penalties, and removing outdated language or provisions. The vast majority of the reforms were not controversial: Mayor Muriel Bowser said she supported 95% of the changes. But ultimately, neither D.C.’s City Council nor Mayor Bowser get the last word: since D.C. is not a state, Congress must review all local legislation before it can become law.
Biden’s tweet was met with a range of reactions. The backlash among progressives, particularly those living in D.C., was swift. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote, “If you support self-rule for jurisdictions only so long as they do not make choices you oppose, you do not actually support self-rule.” Perry Bacon Jr. of the Washington Post argued that the decision was in the tradition of the “troubling and at times truly terrible things” that Democratic presidents have done “to appease centrist White voters and win elections.” Even Mayor Bowser, who opposed the policy on the merits, criticized federal officials’ “meddling in the affairs of the District of Columbia.”
Aside from the home-rule issue, some criminal justice reform advocates also defended the proposed rule changes on substantive grounds. For example, the new code reduced the maximum sentence for carjacking (the crime that President Biden singled out) from 40 to 24 years. Paul Butler, the former federal prosecutor who helped draft the new code, argued that there was a good reason for that change. “One of the group’s charges was to harmonize the criminal code with the actual practices of D.C. judges,” Butler wrote in the Post. “We looked at sentencing records between 2010 and 2019, and found that for carjacking almost no one gets sentenced to the maximum. The average sentence is 15 years.”
Why, the critics have asked, would Biden go against his previously stated policy preferences to undermine criminal justice reform advocates? Could this be anything other than a president succumbing to the pressures of national politics as he gears up for re-election?
But other prominent liberals have disputed that this is all politics. The left-leaning editorial board of the Washington Post called the proposed overhaul “far-reaching” and said it would “further tie the hands of police and prosecutors while overwhelming courts.” The editorial board specifically criticized a provision that would scale back penalties for convicted felons carrying firearms and one that would get rid of life sentences. They also wrote that the bill “gets rid of mandatory minimums for every crime but first-degree murder. The maximum penalty for someone convicted of a violent felony while using a gun to commit more violence would drop to four years from 15 years.”
Democratic strategist Lis Smith, who served as Pete Buttigieg’s top political advisor during his presidential run, argued on CNN that Biden’s decision made sense on both politics and substance. “In a perfect world, D.C. would have statehood. We do not live in a perfect world. So that means when a bill like this comes to the President’s desk, he has to judge it on its merits. And like the D.C. mayor, like the D.C. police chief, the U.S. Attorney from D.C., he decided this was a bad bill,” she said. Smith also added: “I think it’s really important for Democrats to show that we take the issue of crime seriously, and are listening to voters who are screaming from the rooftops, and don’t want to be told that it’s all in their heads.”
Earlier this month, the Senate, as expected, voted overwhelmingly to block D.C.’s criminal code, with 31 Democrats joining every Republican in opposition. And Biden is expected to sign the bill. Do you agree with Biden’s decision? Or do you agree with critics who say it undermines Biden’s support for DC home rule? Let us know. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.