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D.C.’s Misguided Crime Bill Delivers for Law Enforcement, Not the Community

The recently enacted Secure D.C. bill ignores demands from District residents while giving handouts to an unelected prosecutor desperate to consolidate power.

Washington DC street.
Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

In a sweeping about-face this March, the Council of the District of Columbia enacted a suite of draconian measures the city hasn’t seen since the 1990s. The difference between then and now is that, with the benefit of hindsight and research, we can be confident the changes will cause more harm than they prevent. The Council’s Office on Racial Equity has explained that the so-called Secure D.C. crime bill will contribute to mass incarceration, exacerbate racial disparities, and make the city less safe.

Instead of taking these concerns seriously, however, the legislation’s chief architect has hidden behind claims of community engagement while doing the bidding of an unelected prosecutor.

As chairwoman of the council’s public safety committee, Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) has repeatedly stated that the Secure D.C. bill was informed by her conversations with District residents. It’s not hard to see why Washingtonians might be eager for action to address crime in their city. But it’s difficult to imagine how these demands would translate into the solutions that ultimately made their way into this bill. Who, for example, told Pinto their communities would be made safer by obscuring police disciplinary records from public view, narrowing the right to a jury trial, or changing the composition of our local sentencing commission? Which ward called loudly for weakening the police chokehold ban, compromising the integrity of police reports, and removing privacy protections for children?

These measures may not be priorities for many D.C. residents, but they are almost all on the wish list of Matthew Graves, the federally appointed—and therefore not elected—U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Since last year, Graves has made clear that his theory of crime prevention involves limiting judicial discretion, abrogating due process, and moving decision-making authority from open courtrooms into the halls of his office. With Pinto’s acquiescence, he can now play puppeteer with our legislature.

Unlike most D.C. politicians, who are reliable champions for local autonomy, Pinto has made no effort to hide her allegiance to Graves, all while expressing hostility toward our local prosecutor. District voters had no say in putting Graves in office, and many of his prosecutors are not licensed to practice law in Washington.

If you need more proof that his desires outweighed the community’s, look no further than the eleventh-hour additions to the Secure D.C. bill. Frustrated after the D.C. Court of Appeals held that only judges can order electronic monitoring, Graves slipped in a new section that gives federal probation officers unilateral authority to supersede the orders of D.C. judges and change a person’s conditions of release. This law change was never part of any bill that received public input and was never discussed on the dais during votes. This directly contradicts Councilmember Pinto’s repeated claims that every part of Secure D.C. was subject to a public hearing.

Graves also secured several other handouts in the final bill in the form of reactionary measures that appear to be responding to legal setbacks his office has faced. Multiple sections of Secure D.C. merely recriminalize conduct that is already illegal in Washington—perhaps most notably carjacking and gun possession—in an effort to make these offenses easier to prosecute. But these changes do not refine justice. Instead, they dilute it with overly broad prosecutorial powers that trample on notions of fairness and proportionality.

In a similarly redundant approach, Councilmember Pinto hailed Secure D.C. for creating the District’s “first” felony charge for entering a store with the intent to commit “retail theft.” This claim conveniently overlooks that there has been a statute on the books since the beginning of Home Rule—more than 50 years ago—making this same conduct punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Although this may have made for a great talking point with business owners, it represents another needless legal provision that will do nothing to protect them or their shoppers from crime. It will, however, enable prosecutors in Graves’ office to stack multiple charges for the same conduct, making it easier for them to coerce guilty pleas

In Pinto’s eagerness to appease Graves, she led a policymaking process that largely ignored reforms suggested by experts in 2020, which would have addressed the root causes of violence and improved oversight and accountability. While certain elected officials and the police union have blamed police reform for violent crime, the few reform-oriented measures that were adopted in 2022 have received no funding, almost entirely defanging these efforts to strengthen police and jail oversight and transparency. After showing so little interest in checking law enforcement overreach, perhaps it’s no surprise the city council’s new legislative changes focus primarily on further expanding their power with broad, invasive measures like “drug-free” zones and warrantless searches, which we know won’t work and will ensnare many who are innocent. 

As critics of Secure D.C. continue to voice these concerns, the bill’s supporters have wasted no time working to portray it as an immediate, nearly miraculous success. During a cable news interview in early April, Mayor Muriel Bowser said that crime in the District was down “in all categories” so far this year, a trend she attributed partly to Secure D.C., which she’d signed into law just weeks before.

Such an immediate impact would be all but impossible. But Bowser’s misleading claim demonstrates how shamelessly elected officials politicize crime stats for their benefit. If these harsh new measures supposedly deserved credit for driving down crime, did they also deserve blame for failing to stop a string of shootings less than 10 days after Bowser’s interview? Or just weeks after that, when three more people were killed in another rash of violence?

The reality is that giving more and more power to prosecutors and police does not prevent crime or keep communities safe. Legislation like Secure D.C. is little more than a performative illusion designed to distract constituents who are rightly frustrated by the punitive status quo’s inability to bring true safety to their communities.

Instead of learning from these failures, however, elected and unelected officials have spoon-fed District residents more of the same, telling them it will be different this time. But you cannot fix these problems with broken tools. True safety requires a commitment to balanced, evidence-based, robustly funded policies that address the underlying causes of crime and ensure equitable justice for all. Anything short of that is a distraction meant to favor law enforcement—at the expense of our communities.