A New Criminal Code for the District of Columbia
Comprehensive reform of the District’s criminal laws is urgently needed. The District’s current criminal code has not undergone a comprehensive revision since its creation by Congress in 1901. It still uses a 19th century structure that relies heavily on court opinions to articulate the requirements for criminal liability. The District’s current criminal code stands in sharp contrast to most other U.S. jurisdictions. Most states comprehensively restructured and redrafted their criminal statutes in the mid- to late- 20th century following the issuance of the Model Penal Code (MPC) by the American Law Institute in 1962.
The District is among the minority of jurisdictions that did not update their code at that time. In addition, the District is the only jurisdiction whose criminal laws were mostly written by members of Congress instead of locally elected legislators. The Council has revised parts of the current criminal code, but piecemeal legislative amendments have not fixed the pervasive, structural problems with the D.C. Code. Improvements to the clarity, consistency, completeness, organization, and proportionality of the District’s criminal code are needed.
D.C. Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC)
In 2016, the Council established the CCRC as an independent agency to provide recommendations to the Council and Mayor for revising the District’s criminal statutes. In the more than five years since its inception, the CCRC developed recommendations for a revised criminal code. The agency conducted an exhaustive study of current District criminal law and practice, reviewed model legislation and other jurisdictions’ best practices, researched relevant social science literature, and analyzed District charging and sentencing data.
The CCRC staff also worked in consultation with a statutorily-designated Advisory Group that reviewed CCRC proposals and provided feedback and insight to update drafts. The five voting members of the Advisory Group included designees of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, the Director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, and two Council appointed law professors. The Advisory Group also included designees of the Chairperson of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety as non-voting members. The CCRC held monthly meetings with the Advisory Group, which were open to the public, and posted drafts of revised statutes and accompanying commentary on the CCRC agency website. The Advisory Group provided written comments on the draft statutes and commentary. The CCRC addressed each Advisory Group comment in detail, explaining why the feedback was or was not accepted, based on its mandate. On March 24, 2021, the five voting members of the Advisory Group voted unanimously to approve the CCRC’s final package of recommendations, and to forward them to the Council and Mayor for consideration.
The “Revised Criminal Code Act of 2021”
On October 1, 2021, at the request of the CCRC, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced the CCRC’s recommendations as a bill, the “Revised Criminal Code Act of 2021” (RCCA) (B24-0416). The RCCA creates a uniform and proportionate classification system for penalties and codifies general definitions and other legal requirements applicable to all criminal offenses. The RCCA provides for greater predictability, transparency, proportionality, and fairness in District criminal laws. If adopted, the legislation would be the first comprehensive revision of the District’s criminal code since Congress created it in 1901.
The Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held a symposium and three public hearings on the RCCA in the fall of 2021. Public witnesses included advocates and experts in criminal law, as well as District residents, including residents directly affected by the District’s criminal code. Government witnesses included representatives from the CCRC, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. Across the three hearings, witnesses testified in near unanimous support of the RCCA.
On October 6, 2022, the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee of the Washington, DC Council unanimously approved the RCCA on a 5:0 vote. On November 15, 2022 the Council as a whole unanimously approved the RCCA on a 13:0 vote.