President Joe Biden surprised fellow Democrats when he reversed course and announced he would support a Republican resolution to nullify an overhaul of crime laws passed by the Washington, DC, Council. While Congress has the authority to override DC legislation, it hasn’t done so in more than 30 years, making this move a dangerous new precedent at a time when Republicans are eager to use state power to swat down any progressive advances.
Some observers (Slate, 3/3/23; Popular Information, 3/7/23) called out Biden’s hypocrisy. The president’s move comes after he had both endorsed DC statehood and publicly opposed the resolution (2/6/23), arguing that it was a “clear [example] of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood.”
Equally hypocritical is the big hometown paper, the Washington Post. The Post‘s editorial board has written forcefully for statehood on many occasions. “That the 650,000 people who live in the nation’s capital are denied their full rights as US citizens is a travesty that cannot be condoned and should not be continued,” it wrote in 2014 (9/12/14).
In 2020, the board (6/26/20) called it “a civil rights issue,” and lamented that DC’s
conduct of municipal affairs—as has been made painfully clear in recent weeks when the Trump administration shortchanged DC’s effort to deal with Covid-19 and unleashed federal troops against peaceful protesters—is subject to the whims of those who sit in the White House and Congress.
More recently, the board (6/24/21) contended:
The ugly truth that statehood opponents look away from is that more than 700,000 residents of DC are denied the basic democracy this country was founded on. They are taxed—paying more federal income tax per capita than any state—without equal say in the federal laws that govern them, and the decisions of their local government are subject to the whims of Congress.
But apparently the Post‘s position depends less on the principle of self-government and civil rights, and more on whether the board agrees with those congressional whims. Because rather than decry Congress’s nullification as a travesty, the editorial board (3/3/23) endorsed Biden’s decision to let it proceed. Writing that “it’s a shame it came to this,” the Post nevertheless declared approvingly that Biden “picked public safety over home rule for the capital city,” insisting that “Washingtonians have a right to feel and be safe.”
‘The right to intercede’
The board had already made clear its willingness to sacrifice the idea of DC self-government on this issue, writing a week earlier (2/24/23) that “public safety in the District is foundational” and that “Congress’s concern…is understandable.” “It has the right to intercede,” the board insisted.
The board (11/11/22) has been outspoken about its opposition to the crime bill. Among its objections, “Foremost is the reduction in maximum sentences for certain violent offenses and too-lenient treatment of gun crimes.” The Post rhetorically asked of the DC Council, “What message will it send if it goes ahead with plans to reduce penalties for firearm offenses?”
In case the answer wasn’t clear enough, it headlined its next editorial on the subject (1/15/23), “DC’s Crime Bill Could Make the City More Dangerous.” That commentary claimed that the bill “will further tie the hands of police and prosecutors while overwhelming courts.”
In part, this would be because the bill would give people facing possible prison time the right to a jury trial, and it would “leave dangerous people on the streets as they await trial.” In other words, the Post would appear to object to the right to a jury of one’s peers and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
As Mark Joseph Stern, a DC-based courts and law reporter for Slate (1/21/23), painstakingly explained, the bill “is not a traditional reform bill, but the result of a 16-year process to overhaul a badly outdated, confusing and often arbitrary criminal code.” It was drafted by an advisory group that included representatives from the DC attorney general’s office and the US attorney’s office, the two offices that prosecute all crimes in DC, and its revisions are “in line with uncontroversial moves conducted in red and blue jurisdictions alike since the 1960s.” The advisory group unanimously voted to submit its recommendations to the DC Council, which in turn unanimously passed the bill.
Rampant media claims that the bill would be “soft on crime” and decrease penalties, Stern writes, either maliciously or ignorantly misrepresent the more complicated reality:
The notion that the RCCA “softens” penalties for violent crime—especially carjacking and gun offenses—is false in every way that matters. To the contrary, the law increases penalties for a variety of crimes in ways designed to make their prosecution easier. The max penalty for several sex offenses is significantly higher under the RCCA. So is the max penalty for possessing an assault rifle, ghost gun, large capacity magazine or bomb. And the max for attempted murder surges from five years to 22.5 years.
With lengthy explanations and hyperlinks, Stern concluded that the claim that the bill “could increase violent crime is not borne out by data.”
Dismissing racial equity
Stern also expressed frustration at the media campaign against the bill—led by Fox and conservative commentators, but eagerly embraced by the Post—as the bill “is not, and has never been, designed to reduce incarceration in DC,” despite the fact that “the District has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.”
Those incarcerated are also over 90% Black, while the DC population is only 45% Black (DC DoC, 1/23). Meanwhile, Congress is 11% Black—and the Post editorial board is 100% white. (The board’s one Black member, Jonathan Capehart, resigned in December 2022, reportedly because, after Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock won reelection, Capehart’s white colleagues insisted on a line mocking those who had warned about voter suppression in Georgia—Axios, 2/28/23; Washington Examiner, 2/28/23.)
Its January editorial was the only one of the board’s recent editorials on the reform bill in which the Post addressed issues of racial disparities or equity—and quickly dismissed them as unconvincing:
Proponents of the bill say African Americans are disproportionately convicted of violent crimes and couch their arguments in terms of equity. African Americans are also disproportionately victims of these same crimes.
According to a poll taken last year (HIT Strategies, 3/2/23), 83% of DC registered voters approved of the crime reform bill, including 86% of Black voters. The Post self-righteously condemns those who would deny DC self-governance—until it disagrees with the people’s decisions about how to govern themselves.
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