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At Judicial & Bar Conference, Advocates Paint Uncertain Future of Criminal Code Reform Efforts

May 01, 2023

By Jeremy Conrad

Judicial & Bar Conference

Approximately 600 members of the D.C. legal community gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on April 28 for the biennial Judicial & Bar Conference, featuring D.C. Courts judges, former District mayors and attorneys general, members of the D.C. Council, and Bar leaders as speakers.

The conference, held in person for the first time since the pandemic, contemplated 50 years of home rule and the District’s continuing struggle for self-government and representation in Congress.

One session, “Code ‘Read’: A Comprehensive Review of D.C.’s New Criminal Code,” provided attendees the latest update on the District’s thwarted attempt to modernize its century-old criminal code. Unanimously passed by the D.C. Council in November 2022, the District’s Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA) was rejected by Congress in March. The proposed revised code was the culmination of a 16-year effort by the Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC) to update the city’s criminal laws.

Initially intended as an introduction to the proposed sweeping changesin the RCCA, the “Code ‘Read’” session instead reflected on the intent and logic behind the updates, their fundamental necessity, the mistruths advanced by opponents, and the outlook for a comprehensive code reform.

CCRC Executive Director Jinwoo Park criticized the rejection of the RCCA, pointing out that the current code fails to define crimes, establish the elements of those crimes, or allow for the enhancement of penalties or differentiation between crimes involving significantly different levels of violence.

“I’m very upset about how this all played out because this work was so important and it would create such a dramatic and long-standing change for the District, and the powers that be just stamped it out without the vaguest idea about the policies they were voting on,” Park said.

Laura Hankins, general counsel for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and a member of the Criminal Code Revision Advisory Group, said critics of the RCCA failed to acknowledge the remaining opportunities to refine the code. “We worked really hard on the code revision, but it wasn’t perfect. There’s a process to address that. That’s the legislative process. There were three years before the law was going to be implemented, and if there were problems, there is a Council and a legislative process that could have fixed it,” Hankins said.

Speaking on his own behalf, David Rosenthal, senior assistant attorney general of the Public Safety Division of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia and also an advisory group member, expressed frustration with Congress’s wholesale nullification of the RCCA.

“If they really didn’t like [the proposed penalties for] carjacking, there was nothing that could have stopped the House of Representatives from saying, ‘We like this whole thing, but carjacking is life in prison, no parole,’ and we would have been stuck with that,” he said. “They could have fixed every element or every part of the criminal code, had it been their desire to do so, but instead they chose to veto it.”

The CCRC was established 16 years ago and made permanent in 2020, with the intention that it continue its work of updating the code and issuing recommendations relating to the application of D.C.’s criminal laws on an ongoing basis. Shortly after the rejection of the RCCA, Mayor Muriel Bowser sought to defund the commission in her proposed fiscal year 2024 budget, now pending before the Council.

“I’m very proud of the work that we did, and I’m still very hopeful that we’ll pass something that’s at least substantially similar to what the RCCA was in the coming years,” Park said.

Moderator Patrice Sulton, executive director of DC Justice Lab, urged attendees to support the CCRC’s continuation. “There’s still time to contact your councilmember and let them know how important it is to fully fund the Criminal Code Reform Commission, which is not done with its work yet,” Sulton said.

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