Legal Guide

How Political Tensions Threaten Local Command of Criminal Enforcement

The federal government generally allows state governments to chart their destinies in terms of laws that do not have a national bearing. But recent months have seen national politics take precedence and threaten to take control of criminal justice away from the state as it has played out in Washington, DC.

Early March 2023, the US Senate passed a bill blocking a criminal code the district's city council had previously approved. According to the bill's critics, it would have reduced penalties for many crimes. 

The First Time in 30 Years

President Biden has already signaled his intention to append his signature on the bill, marking the first time Congress will use its power to overturn a decision made by the DC government in 30 years. 

Proponents of the bill from the Democratic side of the house criticized the president's position, citing his previous commitment to supporting Washington, DC's right to self-governance. Democratic presidents and members of Congress have always supported the idea of Washington DC's self-governance.  

Its Political Survival Tactic

Political commentators from both sides look at Biden's move as a calculated political decision to ward off criticism from right-wingers and moderate lefties on his soft stance on crime. 

Remember, Joe Biden has his eye on the election, as he announced in late April. He has to appeal to his bases, which feel he could be doing a better job of tackling crime.

But the president was not alone in supporting this bill. 33 Democratic senators voted to block Washington DC's code. Expressing his dissatisfaction with the turn of events, Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, referred to the move by the Senate as stunning, stating the facts of the criminal code were distorted to fit a political narrative.  

The Goal Was To Modernize a Century-Old Code

According to Patrice Sulton, a legal scholar and one of the authors of the code, politicians were looking at the code as part of the de-incarceration agenda or as a way to usher in a new era of lenient sentencing. The goal was to modernize the century-old code that lawyers have cited as inconsistent and confusing over time. 

The revised code would have lowered sentencing ranges for some crimes, bringing the sentencing guidelines close to common practice—for example, the revised code sought to minimize sentencing for carjacking from 40 years to 24 years. 

Today the harshest penalty passed for the crime by judges in Washington DC is 15 years. Twenty-four years are even longer than the guidelines for conservative States like Georgia and Louisiana, which have a 20-year sentence for a similar offense. 

Sulton also noted that while the code lured some penalties, it increased penalties for others. For example, it increased punishment for attempted murder from 5 to 20 years, but nobody focuses on those areas. 

It Is the Politicians Playing Their Games

The debate on crime policy has been ongoing for years, but it has never been as vibrant as it has in the last few years, as the country has been experiencing a surge of crime in all states. 

Legislators from the two sides are almost always on opposite sides of the debate, and it is only now that there seems to be some form of consensus that may not be necessarily advised by principle but by a political agenda. 

According to commentators from both the right and the left, crime will be on the agenda in the upcoming election campaigns, and every politician wants to be seen as holding the solution. 

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