Black D.C. Residents Weigh In on Embattled Criminal Code Bill

WASHINGTON INFORMER: The Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure blocking the Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA). That measure will go before President Joe Biden (D), who said he wouldn’t veto it

While some District residents lamented the bipartisan congressional interference on District affairs, others, like Sandra Seegars, have spent the past few weeks pressing lawmakers to support the disapproval resolution.

Seegars, a longtime Ward 8 resident and leader of Concerned Residents Against Violence (CRAV), suggested that the D.C. Council and social justice advocates deliberately kept District residents in the dark about the RCCA until the last minute. 

On Wednesday, Seegars and other members of CRAV released a statement in which they accused members of the D.C. Council of using statehood as a distraction from their failure to engage their law-abiding constituents. 

“The council should have had meetings about this bill in every ward,” Seegars said. “Why would you reform the laws and not the criminals? People who are making money off of criminals don’t want them locked up. If crime stopped, then all the organizations would stop.” 

Addressing a Gap Between the D.C. Council and Constituents 

Hours before the Senate’s 81-14-1 vote of the RCCA disapproval resolution on Wednesday, a collective of grassroots organizations, advocates and elected officials marched to the U.S. Capitol in support of the legislation — and the ongoing fight for D.C. statehood. 

Plans for what was called the “Hands Off D.C.” rally and march coalesced after Biden said in a tweet that the D.C. Council’s overturn of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of the RCCA compelled his support of the GOP-introduced disapproval resolution. 

Speakers scheduled to speak at a rally outside of Union Station included Makia Green and NeeNee Taylor of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams; D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D); D.C. Council members Robert White (D-At Large), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6); ANC Commissioners the Rev. Wendy Hamilton (8D06) and Jamila White (8A05); and Patrice Sulton, executive director of DC Justice Lab. 

Had Congress and Biden approved the RCCA, it would’ve gone into effect in 2025. The legislation, which took 16 years to shape and pass through the D.C. Council, would’ve updated the District’s more-than-a-century criminal code, which experts designated as one of the worst in the country. 

Polarizing elements of the RCCA include expansion of jury trials to defendants charged with misdemeanors, lowering of penalties for carjacking, and inclusion of offenders older than 25 years old in the Second Look Amendment Act. 

Residents, such as Robbie Woodland, a Ward 8 resident and CRAV member, also took issue with a part of the RCCA that increased the burden of proof in rape cases. 

In revealing her apprehensions about the RCCA last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said that advisory neighborhood commissioners and others who are on the ground should have been able to weigh in on the law. 

Sulton pointed out that a commission composed of attorneys and a data scientist took on the task of shaping the bill. She told The Informer that constituents had a chance to comment on the RCCA during the research and writing portion of the process, and after the Office of the U.S. Attorney, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General and the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia approved it. 

In 2021, the D.C. Council conducted three hearings about the RCCA that attracted at least 70 public witnesses — including government officials, ANC commissioners, returning citizens, and representatives of nonprofit organizations. A bill recently introduced by Bowser earlier this year postpones implementation of the RCCA to 2027 and brings the more controversial provisions of the bill before the D.C. Council for further deliberation. 

With the RCCA going back to the John A. Wilson Building, Sulton said that the work continues in dispelling misconceptions circulated by media outlets and detractors about the legislation. She suggested that part of that strategy involves speaking about the bill in its entirety and better ensuring that District residents are able to weigh in on elements of concern. 

“There’s a lot to do to change how policymaking is done to democratize civic engagement,” Sulton said. “Changing policy can’t happen without changing who is changing the policy.” 

Navigating Treacherous Political Waters

Shortly after the Senate’s vote on Wednesday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) tweeted that lawmakers on Capitol Hill who supported the disapproval resolution didn’t know what was in the RCCA. 

Earlier in the week, Mendelson unsuccessfully attempted to take the RCCA out of the congressional review process with plans to review the legislation. On Monday, he acknowledged that the council needs to take the RCCA directly to District residents on the second go-around. 

Meanwhile, District residents continue to reel from levels of violent crime not seen in years. As of Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Department reported 40 homicides, more than 200 assaults with a dangerous weapon, and more than 400 armed robberies.  

A recent incident of gun violence that critically injured an elderly woman in a Safeway parking lot in Southeast compelled local organizer Ron Moten, former mayoral candidate Rodney “Red” Grant, ANC Commissioner Robin McKinney (8A06) and others to publicly demand the infusion of public safety resources in Ward 8. 

Moten said the D.C. Council dropped the ball on passing the RCCA in the current climate. He likened this situation to other instances, like marijuana decriminalization, when local officials passed laws without considering how they would affect native Black Washingtonians — particularly those who are victims of violence. 

While he doesn’t support congressional interference in District affairs, Moten went further to point out that local officials didn’t keep in mind D.C.’s precarious position as a city under federal control when they let the RCCA go to the Republican-controlled legislature. 

“You give the Republicans a field day,” Moten said. “Whenever someone has a bill they want to pass, they count the votes and check the temperament [of the politicians]. That’s Politics 101. You don’t just send the policy down to Congress.”

Photo: Hours before the Senate’s 81-14-1 vote of the RCCA disapproval resolution on March 8, a collective of grassroots organizations, advocates and elected officials march to the U.S. Capitol in support of the legislation and the ongoing fight for D.C. statehood. (Courtesy of Cleveland Nelson)

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