Council Overwhelmingly Overrides Veto, Sustains Substantive Criminal Code Revision

Since Home Rule began in 1975, mayoral vetoes are rare. The Council’s Legislative Information Management System (LIMS) records just 57 mayoral vetoes from 1989 through the present. Veto overrides are even more rare, with just seven attempts (six successful) over that same time period.

But when a comprehensive overhaul of a century’s worth of the District’s criminal code is at stake, fully sixteen years in the making, the Council determined by a 12-1 margin that a substantive override of a symbolic veto is both needed and justified.

At its most recent Legislative Meeting, the Council faced a fundamental question. The diverse participants in the Criminal Code Reform Commission (including prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, and criminal justice reform advocates) spent years coming up with a reform package that the Council then shepherded through the legislative process. Fully 95 percent of the reforms were truly consensus content, and completely uncontroversial. And none of the changes encompassed in the bill would take effect for at least three years in any case.

So, given all this context, which was the best path forward—allowing a mayoral veto of the bill to stand, essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and leaving the future of the entire reform package in question? Or, would the better path be to capture the consensus 95 percent via a veto override, knowing full well that the remaining debate-worthy five percent would be addressed via subsequent legislation already in the pre-conception stage by the mayor and some councilmembers? The answer for most councilmemebers was clear.

Multiple councilmembers made the point at the most recent Legislative Meeting that decades of dramatic increases in incarceration have not been a solution to rising crime, and that mass incarceration creates its own intergenerational societal impacts. Councilmembers also emphasized that the severity of criminal penalties have no meaningful impact on crime, if for no other reason than those committing crimes are completely unaware of the penalties for the crimes they commit.

Hating crime is easy. Fighting crime is essential but insufficient. Preventing crime is the holy grail of a safe future. When the Council passed the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act in 2016, it was an effort to achieve the elusive goal of crime prevention through treating violence as a public health crisis. The bill was not fully funded until 2017, and according to a June 2022 report by the DC Auditor, implementation of the NEAR Act by the executive branch has been “uneven,” and two NEAR Act initiatives have never been implemented despite claims to the contrary.

What comes next for the criminal code reform bill now that the veto has been overriden? As District residents are all too aware, all District laws must be transmitted to the Congress for a layover period during which, if a majority of each house of Congress votes to do so, and the President signs the measure, the bill in question will be overturned. Under the 1974 Home Rule Act which created the Mayor and Council of the District of Columbia, virtually all measures must be sent to Congress and sit for a layover period that lasts 30 legislative days. Given Congress’ comparatively skimpy schedule of being in session, these 30 legislative days can stretch on for months. This is bad enough. But in the Home Rule Act, a separate, double-long 60-day layover period is established specifically for changes to the District’s criminal code. Though, under the terms of the criminal code revision bill, none of the changes in the would take effect until 2025 anyway, this double-delay only rubs salt in the wound of our limited autonomy.

The aforementioned mandatory delay in all DC bills becoming law also played a part in the second primary piece of legislation approved at the most recent Legislative Meeting. Back in November, DC voters approved by a wide margin Initiative 82. This legislation, known as the District of Columbia Tip Credit Elimination Act, which gradually do away with the current system, whereby tipped employees can be paid at a sub-minimum wage level as long as their employer “makes them whole” and pays them the difference if their tips do not elevate their lower wage to the minimum wage.

As passed, the bill had the first scheduled pay bump (to $6 an hour) taking effect on January 1, 2023. But given that the bill remains in Congressional review limbo, this is not yet law, and therefore cannot be implemented. At its most recent Legislative Meeting, the Council, via emergency legislation, shifted the effective date for this first pay bump to May 1, 2023. The bill’s second planned pay bump, to $8 an hour, set for July 1, 2023, is not affected by this delay. Subsequent annual pay bumps occurring on July 1 of each year are also not affected.

The Council’s next scheduled Legislative Meeting will be held on February 7.