For the first time in more than 100 years, the District of Columbia is working to overhaul its criminal code. The major undertaking would have a major impact on the District’s criminal justice system.
Crime in DC has been an issue lawmakers have grappled with for generations. But the criminal code the District follows has never been fully updated since Congress wrote it in 1901.
Ward 6 Council Member Charles Allen is proposing a major overhaul.
“Many members of Congress in 1901 were ex-slave owners. When we have a criminal law like that, it welcomes bias,” Allen said. “Right now we have a disproportionate, outdated mess of criminal law.”
Allen, who oversees public safety, points to one law that is still in place.
“Kids playing on the streets of DC is technically a crime,” he said. “It’s crazy. Our current criminal code is a mess.”
Renovation would deal with crimes such as robberies.
“Basically [right now]you just have robbery,” Allen said. “And what we’re going to have under the revised code is we’re going to have both armed and unarmed robbery, but then different degrees: first, second and third degree, which really helps the court, helps the victims, helps to the accused to really find out the damage that was done.”
Allen singles out the most common criminal charge as one that needs to be better defined.
“Simple assault is actually the number one charge in the District of Columbia, and yet if you go through the D.C. code, you won’t find any description of what simple assault means,” he said.
D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee supports updating the code, but said he has some concerns.
“It means retraining every officer, police officer, federal employee,” Contee said.
“When you talk about public defecation and urination not being a crime, that’s problematic,” Contee said. “When you’re talking about ordinary assault, the person would have to suffer some harm. What about a person who spits on someone? If you spit on someone, that should be codified as well.”
The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, while expressing some concern, issued a statement calling the changes much-needed.
The DC Council will have to vote on the proposed changes; then the changes would go to Mayor Muriel Bowser for her signature. If adopted, it would take place gradually over a period of three years, and would fully come into force at the end of 2025.