WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said Thursday he is willing to sign a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking new laws from the District of Columbia that would overhaul the nation’s capital’s way of prosecuting and punishing crime.
With that, the president would allow Congress to nullify the city’s laws for the first time in more than three decades. Biden’s willingness to do so, despite previous opposition from his White House, is linked to growing concerns about rising crime, both in the nation’s capital and across the US, and stems from relentless criticism from Republicans .
“One thing the president believes in is making sure the streets of America and communities across the country are safe,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “That includes DC”
The district lacks the same rights that states have to make and change laws. While Congress has given the city’s residents some “self-government” powers, it has retained its veto power over actions by the county government. District residents also have no voting members of Congress.
City officials have spent nearly two decades trying to overhaul Washington’s criminal justice laws, including redefining crimes, changing criminal justice policies, and reviewing how sentences should be handed down after convictions. The revision was approved by the DC Council late last year. It overrode a veto from Mayor Muriel Bowser, who was concerned about some of the changes.
Then the Republican-controlled House stepped in, claiming that the changes in the district would add to Washington’s already rising crime rate — the 2021 homicide rate was the highest in nearly 20 years — and make it harder for some criminals would make it easier to get out of prison or avoid punishment altogether.
The resolution passed the House of Representatives with some Democratic support and appears poised to pass the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan basis, perhaps as early as next week. After Biden privately told senators he would sign the measure overriding the changes, some Democratic senators said they would also support the measure.
Biden later tweeted that while he supported statehood for DC, “I’m not in favor of some of the changes the DC Council has put forward over the mayor’s objections — like lowering the penalties for carjackings.”
He added, “If the Senate votes to nullify what the DC Board did, I will sign it.”
The decision comes weeks before Biden will announce his re-election campaign and as he works to craft his message to voters and fend off expected GOP attacks on his record.
The GOP efforts are part of a growing political backlash against Democrat-led criminal justice changes, which gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid for re-election this week as some of her Democratic challengers argued the nation’s third-largest city needed tough crime policies. Some Republicans blame rising crime on reform, but the reality is more complicated.
Earlier Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called crimes rampant in his home state of Kentucky as he tried to blame Biden and Democrats for rising crime, including an incident two days ago when masked thieves stormed a car showroom and drove off with a half a dozen cars. .
“Getting killers off our streets and foreign poisons out of our neighborhoods are among the most basic governance responsibilities imaginable,” McConnell added, referring to the country’s fentanyl crisis. “Apparently the Biden administration either disagrees or simply cannot deliver.”
The Washington Penal Code has not been substantially updated since it was first drafted in 1901. Criminal justice experts have said it is outdated, confusing, and inconsistent with the way crimes are punished today. In the nation’s capital, as in most places in the United States, black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.
The revisions approved by the DC Council late last year would remove mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and expand jury trials for lesser charges. The changes would also lower maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and theft.
House Republicans voted 250 to 173 to overturn the penal code rewrite.
They also took action to overturn a new D.C. law that would give non-citizens the right to vote. Biden is expected to pass that override as well.
By allowing such adjustments, Democrats would be reneging on a commitment to oppose the unusual rules governing the district that allow Congress to intervene. The approval comes despite longstanding pressure from Democrats to grant the nation’s capital a statehood. Some struggled with that Thursday.
Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said, “On the one hand, I really support the state of D.C., I support D.C.’s home government. On the other hand, the mayor vetoed the bill, saying it wouldn’t provide enough security. offer… so I am torn.”
Jean-Pierre repeatedly dodged questions about how Biden’s decision to substitute his own judgment and that of Congress for the will of the city’s elected representatives squares with his previous support for self-government in the district.
“The decision he makes, he makes for the people of DC,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus vowed to work quickly to try to influence the Senate against the bill before next week’s expected vote.
“We need to make sure the Senate understands the full effect of taking away local decision-making, especially for the District of Columbia that isn’t represented in that way,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Representative Steven Horsford, D-Nev . “What the Senate does matters.”
The crime legislation, due to take effect in 2025, caused some friction within the district administration. In January, Mayor Bowser vetoed it, writing in a letter that she had “very serious concerns” about some of the bills. She later proposed changes after the council overrode its veto.
In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the precinct, down about 10% after years of steady increases. The city’s homicide rate had risen for four straight years and the homicide rate in 2021 was the highest since 2003 at 227. The city’s police union said in a statement that changes “would cause the violent crime rate to explode even more than now whatever the case”.
But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s non-voting delegate to the House, said the criminal justice overhaul was “extremely important” and the culmination of years of work by lawmakers, criminal justice experts and offender nonprofits.
“Any attempt to overturn the democratically enacted laws of the District of Columbia erodes the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-government — a right enjoyed by nearly every other American,” said DC Attorney General Brian Schwalb.
While it’s been more than three decades since Congress has outright overturned a D.C. law, Congress has often used alternative methods to change local laws on issues from abortion funding to marijuana legalization.
Associated Press White House Correspondent Zeke Miller, Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro, and AP writers Kevin Freking and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.