D.C. Democrats Should Listen to Mayor Bowser

When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, the nation began a conversation about police, race, and public safety that is still ongoing. At the time, a nation experiencing a generation-long reduction in violent crime was asking itself if it should re-examine how it polices itself. Even yours truly saw police reform as a bank-shot way to provide local homeowners some tax relief.

However, something else was going on: the decades-long reduction in crime went into abrupt reverse (Axios). The rise in 2020 didn’t repeat itself in 2021, but that still puts crime above pre-COVID levels. So long as that remains the case, reducing police manpower remains unwise at best. Reform of the criminal codes has become understandably more delicate politically. It can still be done, but it must be done with a recognition of the rise in anxiety and fear.

Through all of this, I’ve found the politician closest to the zeitgeist on this issue (even as it shifted over recent years), has been D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Three years ago, right after the Battle of Lafayette Square, Bowser responded to Trump et al by renaming 16th Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza” at the sight of the protest (WaPo). Last November, she became the first D.C. Mayor to win a third term since Marion Barry in 1986.

But this year, the D.C. City Council attempted to reform its criminal code, and things went awry. Bowser tried to right the ship in January (WaPo).

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Tuesday announced that she would veto an overhaul of the city’s criminal code that the D.C. Council unanimously approved in November.

“I expect to be sending the council members a letter with my concerns, accompanied by my veto,” Bowser said at a news conference Tuesday.

At the news conference, Bowser said that a law that reduces penalties sends the wrong message and that she was concerned about overburdening the court system.

“I think it’s the wrong way to go. We’re also very concerned that the courts have the resources to keep up with the law,” Bowser said. “We’re just now seeing the courts really get going in full force post-pandemic, and what this law would suggest is that the number of trials would skyrocket. We have concerns about all of that.”

While Bowser’s veto was overridden, Congress – which has final authority over D.C. legislation because it’s the federal capital – is preparing to reverse the law, with President Biden’s approval (WaP0). At first, this becomes an argument that looks like public safety versus home rule. On closer look, Bowden’s veto means there’s less than meets the eye on the latter. Further emphasizing the minimization is that the reform wouldn’t take effect until October 2025. In other words, whether Congress acts or not, there is plenty of time for the Council to incorporate Bowser’s suggested changes and reform the code in a way that neither reduce safety nor floods an unprepared local judiciary.

Any discussion of criminal justice reform tends to crash in the shoals of division between public safety and social justice. Very few politicians have managed to navigate that terrain. Mayor Muriel Bowser is one of those few. Many more can join her if they would listen to her more.

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