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How D.C.’s criminal code became a political headache for Joe Biden

Republicans — and some Democrats — turned the city’s criminal code into a show of what it means to be tough on crime.

A 16-year-long effort to update Washington, D.C.’s local criminal code has become the victim of a national political fight this week after Republicans — and some Democrats — criticized it as “soft on crime.”

President Joe Biden announced he would sign a bill preventing the new criminal code from taking effect in the district, despite his administration’s previous stance supporting statehood for Washington.

Congress and the president have the power to prevent Washington laws from going into effect, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in February to stop the city’s new criminal code from being implemented. Several House Democrats voted alongside Republicans on a resolution of disapproval.

Before the bill goes to the president, it goes to the Senate — and more Democrats have signaled they don’t like the new code, either. And either way, Biden said he would sign a bill preventing the code from going into effect if it makes it to his desk.

Biden’s signature puts him in a position to defend himself as “tough on crime” as he faces Republican blows accusing him of the opposite ahead of his likely reelection bid. However, it also puts him on the side of a Republican-led effort to disrupt the agenda of a Democratic-heavy city.

The debate has come to a head on Capitol Hill the same week Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her reelection bid, as her opponents focused their own campaigns on her handling of rising crime in the city. The Chicago runoff features one candidate who, prior to his campaign, expressed support for the Defund the Police movement — who’s facing a candidate who ran specifically on being tough on crime.

How it started

However, data also shows that the previous maximum sentences were far out of line with the average sentences actually given. And supporters of the revised code say the changes won’t reduce penalties in practice.

In a letter to constituents earlier this year, Washington D.C., Councilmember Brooke Pinto said that most sentences judges currently give out for crimes like robbery, burglary and carjacking are already less than what is outlined as the maximum sentence in the revised criminal code.

In the weeks that followed the council’s unanimous vote, one Democratic commissioner, Denise Rucker Krepp, was outspoken about her opposition to the code with local news outlets. By mid-December, she appeared on “Fox & Friends” — Fox News’ ultraconservative morning show. “I believe that rapists should serve their full sentence, and if the D.C. Council wants to release them, fine,” she told Ashley Strohmier, referring to a provision of the code that allows violent criminals to petition for release after serving 20 years. “Let’s go to Congress and seek their help.”

Republicans jumped at opportunity to criticize the progressive city and dragged Democrats along for the ride.

“You see it in so many big cities — pretty much all run by Democrats, I’ll point out — where crime is out of control after they’ve dropped penalties for criminals, where they’ve defunded the police, this massive shift against law enforcement, against keeping communities safe,” said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise last month.

Biden’s political conundrum

Although there was support from Democrats and Republicans alike to overturn the Washington legislation, it still put Biden in a precarious political situation. Republicans have criticized Democrats for what they call “soft-on-crime” policies, referencing progressive rallying calls like “defund the police.” The rewriting of the code in the district has managed to put the president of the United States in a bind, choosing between appearing “tough on crime” and supporting the district’s autonomy. The Biden administration has previously been vocal about supporting Washington statehood.

Those who already signed on to the Republican-led legislation to overturn the Washington criminal code include some of the most vulnerable House Democrats in the country — those who rely on some conservative support for reelection. Rep. Jared Golden, for example, who represents a northern Maine district that Trump carried by six points in 2020, voted in favor of the congressional bill.

In the last few days, the prospects for the survival of the Washington code dimmed in the Senate. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) signaled earlier this week that he would support the Republican effort, and just a few days later, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) reportedly followed in Manchin’s footsteps. The bill only needed a simple majority of 51 votes to pass the Senate. Once it appeared clear the bill would pass, Biden announced that he would sign the bill.

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