As Congress debates DC's new criminal code, activists urge everyone to get to work

Homicides in the nation's capital are up 30% so far in 2023.

March 6, 2023, 9:37 PM

Pending changes to the century-old criminal code of Washington, D.C., are now at the center of political controversy in Congress and an ongoing debate about the capitol’s municipal sovereignty -- as local advocates say solutions require the very unity lacking in the discussion, with violence on the rise.

The Senate, which has rarely-used oversight authority over the D.C. council, is expected on Wednesday to reject new reforms that would have majorly overhauled the district's criminal code for the first time since 1901.

The new code would reduce some criminal penalties, including for carjacking and robbery, while increasing others, including for attempted murder; it would also require more jury trials and end some mandatory minimum punishments.

While the city council unanimously supported the so-called crime bill, which was developed over 16 years, Mayor Muriel Bowser unsuccessfully vetoed the legislation. Republicans and some Democrats in Congress are now seeking to block it and President Joe Biden has said he will not get in the way, despite his support of D.C. statehood.

Homicides growing

The number of D.C. homicides so far this year is up 31% compared to this point in 2022, according to data from the Metropolitan Police Department. There were 203 homicides last year -- a slight reduction from 2021, which followed several years of steady increases in homicides going back to 2017.

Total reports of violent crime in the district, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, are down slightly so far this year while overall reported crime is up 25%, according to MPD.

PHOTO: FILE - D.C. Metropolitan Police Department officers are seen at Florida Avenue and P Street, NE, Sept. 22, 2022.
D.C. Metropolitan Police Department officers are seen at Florida Avenue and P Street, NE, Sept. 22, 2022.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, FILE

At a press conference Monday, Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee stressed what he called the need for long sentences for those guilty of homicide. He said the average homicide suspect has been arrested 11 times prior.

"We want to keep bad guys off the street and keep them from getting guns in their hands," Contee said. "If we can do those things, we'll see a reduction in homicides in the city."

Mayor Bowser acknowledged a recent scourge of shooting deaths while echoing Contee's determined outlook at the press conference.

"We start this year in a tough spot with shootings and homicides," she said. "But I assure you that we're going to use all the resources at our disposal."

'Hard for us to come together as one'

Although activists have many differing opinions on the crime bill and policing in the district, the local leaders are united in wanting more of a voice should the criminal code be revisited and sent back to Congress, which the city council chairman has indicated is the next step.

On Thursday, some of those advocates gathered with lawmakers in southeast D.C., steps away from where police said a woman was accidentally shot in front of a Safeway and a police station.

Ron Moten, co-founder of Don't Mute DC, said divisions in the debates about policing kept the community further from reducing violence.

“Some of the same people now who raised hell telling people to resign are the same people who say we don't need police,” he said. “So everybody feeling it and don't know what to do. ... This is the time that we start bringing everybody together because we all are in duress, we all are living in fear. So it's hard for us to come together as one D.C., united as one.”

Moten, who is hosting a series of events across all eight wards in the district aimed at curbing violence, did not mince words.

“We have a serious problem in D.C.,” he said. “We have elected officials who are not culturally competent.”

“Put all the B.S. -- put all of the titles, put all the different parties, Democrat, Republican, Black, white -- out the door and let's talk about the real elephant in the room which is equity, harmony, inclusion, education and accountability,” Moten added.

Community members had a role, too, he said.

“It's very important to get people from the community to step up,” he said. “They're part of the prevention. And it's just that simple. It's both ways, and it ain’t just the government either.”

PHOTO: FILE - Members of the Metropolitan Police Department motorcycle unit patrol near the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 47th annual Marine Corps Marathon, Oct. 30, 2022.
Members of the Metropolitan Police Department motorcycle unit patrol near the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 47th annual Marine Corps Marathon, Oct. 30, 2022.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, FILE

Moten told ABC News on Monday that “you have the right to scrutinize the policy that [the city puts] forth, but you don't have a right to strip us of justice and democracy." He strongly disagrees with the current crime bill, he said.

But Congress intervening "is going against democracy -- whether we agree with the legislation or not, that's not the issue. I think that the voters should deal with that.”

The D.C. native, who identifies as an independent, said he expects crime to be one of the top issues in the next federal election and said that if Biden had come out in support of the criminal code changes, that would have hurt him politically -- just as House Democrats who backed the bill are now facing scrutiny at home.

"This is a decision for future votes," he said.

Moten was incarcerated in the 1990s and has since worked to keep people out of prison and empower the community. He said he doesn’t want to see a return to mass incarceration that happened following the wave of street violence in the 1980s and 1990s. He wants more work on the criminal code and would like individual assessments and support to prevent repeat or similar offenses.

He said on Thursday that the assessments could see if an individual "was robbing somebody because he got to feed his siblings [or] if he was robbing somebody because he'd been traumatized for the last 10 years and never got no services [or] if he robbed somebody because he played 'Grand Theft Auto' ... Whatever that situation might be, there has to be an assessment plan put in place to let them know, 'We're gonna help you. But if you don't take the help, you're going to face stiff penalties.'"

In January, not far from the Safeway scene where Moten and others spoke last week, community leaders and activists joined together at a Busboys and Poets restaurant in Anacostia to share a unified message, written in bold red and white on signs carried by attendees: “Thou shall not kill.”

The message was first spread across D.C. 30 years ago, at the height of the crack epidemic.

Philip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, told ABC News in January that he brought back the posters to shock the consciousness of the community, hoping the simple phrase might make a potential criminal think twice.

Several thousand posters have been ordered and posted in windows and businesses and other locations across the city, Pannell said.

“Maybe someone with a gun who is thinking of pulling the trigger may look up and actually see the poster and we moved by not to shoot,” Pannell said. “Because of the constant violence and the shootings and homicides, there are substantial numbers of people in our community that have become too desensitized, almost numb to it.”

Pannell noted then that although there are many anti-violence programs in the district, most residents are not attending or are being touched by those efforts. He said his message against killing “may actually start conversations in areas where there have not been any.”

PHOTO: FILE - Local and Federal law enforcement respond to an alleged shooting in Washington, DC, April 22, 2022.
Local and Federal law enforcement respond to an alleged shooting in Washington, DC, April 22, 2022.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, FILE

Mayor's view

Bowser said Friday, during an interview on the radio show “The Politics Hour” with Kojo Nnamdi, that she wanted to look D.C. “residents in the face and say that we didn't make carjacking penalties more lenient. We didn’t make the environment for police who are trying to take guns off the streets even harder. So we have some work to do. And I know that we’ll all roll up our sleeves and get it done."

She said she would be making more proposals to the city council. "What we have to do is not fight each other," she said.

With a Senate vote expected Wednesday on a resolution to quash the crime bill, activists plan to stage a protest outside of Union Station, not far from the Capitol.

“If Congress overrode local government like this anywhere else in the country, residents would be outraged," organizers for the event wrote in a joint statement. "It is an act of disregard for our local autonomy and sets a dangerous precedent for future interference."

ABC News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.