Century of Criminal Code Changes, Delay in School COVID Vaccination Requirements Lead Recent Council Actions

With time running short in the soon-to-expire 2021-2022 Council Period, the deadline for consideration of measures under Council review is never more top-of-mind than is the case currently. Nowhere is this more apparent, however, than in the long-needed wholesale rewrite of the District’s criminal code.

The District’s criminal code was last fully rewritten back in 1901, by Congress, during a time when the District as a society was completely different, and our population of roughly 280,000 was deeply racially segregated. Though updated many times in the intervening 120 years, the document still contained numerous historical anachronisms and the inconsistencies that come with serially rewriting a long text without re-starting from scratch in over a century. After what in comparison to this 120-year slog seems like a quite brief fifteen years, an independent Criminal Code Reform Commission/Project completed its comprehensive review of the code and provided its recommendations to the Council last year.

In addition to modernizing and streamlining the criminal code, the bill also makes some substantive changes. Mandatory minimum sentences for crimes other than first-degree murder are eliminated, the right to a jury trial is gradually phased in to those charged with misdemeanors, and some maximum criminal penalties are reduced to be in line with recent criminal judgments.

In the first of two needed votes, the Council passed the criminal code rewrite at its most recent meeting. What is remarkable for legislation of this length, complexity, and duration is that the measure passed as part of the Legislative Meeting’s consent agenda, meaning it was approved unanimously, without comment or criticism. The bill requires a second and final vote by the Council prior to being sent to the mayor for approval, and that vote could come as soon as November 15.

As we all know and regret, the District’s Home Rule Charter requires virtually all legislation passed by the Council and signed by the mayor to undergo a thirty legislative day Congressional review period prior to becoming District law. Interestingly, and shockingly, Congress created a special category for bills related to much of the criminal code, meaning that these bills must be held over in Congress for double the normal time, for fully sixty legislative days. Such will be the case for the present rewrite of the Criminal Code, though, since the rewrite will not become effective until 2025, the slow-walked Congressional review is frustrating mainly just in principle.

In other action at the most recent Legislative Meeting, the Council passed an emergency bill to delay the implementation of the previously-legislated COVID vaccine requirement for public school students until the start of the 2023-2024 school year. Originally proposed to begin in time for the 2022-2023 school year, its implementation had already been delayed until January prior to the most recent postponement. In the spring, the Council will hold a hearing regarding the COVID vaccine requirement for students, looking into the state of variants and vaccines at play at that time.

Also at the most recent Legislative Meeting, the Council took the following actions:

  • Approved a systemic inspection and notification system regarding bedbug infestations in multifamily buildings
  • Extended foreclosure protections for financial relief applicants whose applications are still being processed/awards are still pending
  • Promoted limited equity cooperatives and strengthened the condominium warranty protections
  • Required availability of free period products in all District government buildings
  • Extended pandemic provisions allowing Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to meet partially or fully remotely; and approved the nomination of Kent Boese as executive director of the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions

The final three Legislative Meetings of the 2022-2023 Council Period will be held on November 15, December 6, and December 20. Legislation that is not fully through the legislative process prior to the end of Council Period 24 on January 2, 2023 will have to start over in the new Council Period.