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It's a microcosm of the larger debate about changing the nation's criminal justice system. This week, Republicans in the House took steps to block a new criminal code in Washington, D.C. which lowers some maximum criminal penalties. The law passed the city council overwhelmingly, but the Constitution gives Congress oversight of D.C.'s local policies. Lisa Desjardins reports.
It's a microcosm of the larger debate around changing the nation's criminal justice system.
This week, Republicans in Congress have taken steps to block a new criminal code in Washington, D.C. The Constitution gives Congress oversight of D.C.'s local policies, and, yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to disapprove of D.C.'s new law which lowers some maximum criminal penalties. The Senate needs to weigh in next.
Lisa Desjardins has more on the proposed changes.
Washington, D.C.'s new code, which passed the city council overwhelmingly, erases some antiquated laws and more clearly defines others.
It also eliminates most mandatory minimum sentences and lowers maximum sentences for several crimes, including robbery and illegal possession of a firearm.
To discuss this and a larger debate around crime and punishment, I'm joined by Amy Fettig, executive director of The Sentencing Project, and Zack Smith, a fellow with The Heritage Foundation's Edwin Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
Thank you to both.
Amy, D.C.'s new code has many facets. It does increase some penalties, lowers others. But I think that's what I want to focus on, on the sentencing part. What is the argument for lowering some of those maximum sentences?
Amy Fettig, The Sentencing Project:
Well, the first thing you need to know is that D.C.'s criminal code was vastly outdated.
It hasn't been updated in over a century. In contrast to many states that updated their criminal codes in the '60s, '70s and '80s, D.C. has never done that. So it was past time for an overhaul to modernize the criminal code in the District of Columbia, to rationalize the criminal code in the District of Columbia, and to make it more proportional and fair.
And you see those maximum sentences that you believe are too high as outdated?
And, in fact, a lot of the sentences that are in the new criminal code are still very harsh, and frankly, far harsher than some of the sentences we see in other states, like Kentucky and Georgia and Tennessee. From my perspective, they could actually be less harsh.
But, right now, what we have gotten the update is the will of the people. And it was a product of 16 years of deliberations by prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and legal experts.
Zack, this is a national conversation. D.C.'s situation is very specific.
But, talking nationally, I know you are someone who believes that lowering these maximum sentences in general is a bad idea. You hear from Amy that they were overly harsh. Why do you think it's a bad idea?
Zack Smith, The Heritage Foundation:
Well, I disagree that Amy that these sentences were overly harsh.
When you look at specifics, it's very troubling. Look, most mandatory minimum sentences were eliminated in this new criminal code. The only mandatory minimum that remained was for first-degree murder, and even that mandatory minimum was lowered.
The other important point to remember is that maximum sentences are rarely imposed. Those are typically the sentences that community members feel are appropriate when the worst iteration of a crime is committed. But it's typically a much less harsh sentence that a judge poses in most cases where a crime is committed.
And so, when you are lowering the maximum penalties, you are necessary lowering the actual penalties that are imposed in many cases. And with the surge in violent crime that you're seeing not only in the District of Columbia, but in cities around the country right now, this is not a good idea on many levels.
It's interesting. There's an assumption there that the judges will move, while I know the idea that D.C. had was that they were actually trying to align the penalties more with what judges have been issuing.
But I have to ask you, Zack, is that is there evidence that says that higher maximum penalties for criminals actually reduces crime?
There's a lot of studies out there on this issue.
And we do know that lengthier sentences do in fact reduce recidivism rates, the amount of times that an individual repeats in offense after they're released from incarceration. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, in fact, have released several reports highlighting that fact, the most recent one from just this past summer, where they found that lengthier terms of incarceration do, in fact, lower recidivism rates.
Amy does lengthier time in prison, higher maximum sentences, does that reduce crime?
We know from 50 years of mass incarceration in this country that started in 1973, and now we have had 50 years in 2023, that bringing more people into prisons and jails and keeping them there for longer and longer periods of time doesn't make our communities safer.
If more prisons and longer sentences actually made our community safer, the United States would be the safest country in the world, because we incarcerate more people for harsher sentences than any other industrialized country in the world.
The fact is, it doesn't work. Decades of criminological research have demonstrated that long sentences don't create safe communities. So, what we're facing now is a choice. Are we going to build more prisons? Are we going to put more people behind bars? Or are we going to actually invest in public safety, in the solutions that we know work, like preventing violence?
Well, that's what I want to ask you all about as we round us out.
Obviously, this is an important discussion we could spend a lot more time on, but neither of you really thinks that reducing maximum sentences is the best way to curb crime, ultimately.
So I want to ask you, if you can briefly, starting with you, Zack, what do you think is the best way?
Well, I think the best way to reduce crime is to put more officers on the street, empower them to do their jobs to keep communities safe, and for prosecutors to do their jobs as well and prosecute offenders and seek justice for victims.
And I have to push back on one thing that Amy said, Lisa. This idea that we have a mass incarceration problem in our country, it's a myth. If you look at who's actually incarcerated in state and federal prisons, it's repeat, violent offenders. It is people who have committed violent crimes like rape, robbery or murder.
And one of the reasons we have a higher incarceration rate than other Westernized countries is because we have more violent crimes than other Westernized countries. If you look at when the prison population began to increase, it was at the same time that the violent crime rate in our country exploded by over 350 percent.
There is no question we have a mass incarceration problem in this country. This is not an urban-rural problem. This is an American issue.
We're ready for something different. We have been locking up more people than at any time in our history for longer and longer periods of time. In fact, in most states, the fastest growing population are people over 50. They don't need to be in prison now.
But the fact that they are there means that we are spending billions and billions and billions of dollars every single year on failed strategies, when we could be investing in our communities. We could be investing in violence prevention programs.
What doesn't build safe communities is more prisons. If that were the case, we'd be the safest country in the world, and we aren't.
Something so many Americans are thinking about.
Amy Fettig, Zack Smith, thank both for your time and continuing the conversation.
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Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
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