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Senate blocks criminal justice reform bill passed by local lawmakers in D.C.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, the U.S. Senate voted to block a sweeping criminal justice reform bill passed by local lawmakers in the District of Columbia. The yearslong effort to rewrite the city's aging criminal laws ran headfirst into a growing national political fight around crime and public safety, and it's put Democrats and even President Biden on the defensive.

Reporter Martin Austermuhle from member station WAMU has been following the debate in the district and in Congress, and he joins us now. Hey, Martin.

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Hey. OK. So this bill that we're talking about would essentially rewrite the District of Columbia's criminal laws from top to bottom, right? Like, why is this even happening?

AUSTERMUHLE: Well, in short, the entire criminal code in the district is 120 years old. It's full of outdated offenses and a hodgepodge of penalties. It's got references to steamboats, to livestock, to old English ballgames that no one plays anymore. So - and in many cases, modern criminal codes make prosecuting crime easier, since it better defines criminal offenses and so on. So dozens of states have modernized their criminal codes already. But unlike the states, the District of Columbia is overseen by Congress, and that gave members of Congress a chance to jump into this very difficult debate.

CHANG: Right. And Republicans seem to have taken up that fight. Last month, the Republican-led House voted to block the district's new criminal code. What have senators been saying?

AUSTERMUHLE: Well, the biggest issue for a dozen or so Republican senators who have spoken is decreases to some maximum prison sentences for violent crimes in the district. So armed carjacking, for example, which is a problem in the district, like it is in many cities, it currently has a 40-year maximum prison sentence in the city, and this new criminal code would bring it down to 24 years. Now, advocates say there that these sorts of decreases simply match what judges are actually handing out in terms of sentences, but those decreases also give Republican critics in Congress this big opening to not just attack this local bill, but also force Democrats into a debate that they didn't necessarily want on crime. And this is what West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito said today.

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SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Under the Biden administration's soft-on-crime agenda and rhetoric, Washington, D.C. - the capital of our beautiful country - has seen a 25% increase in crime.

AUSTERMUHLE: So crime has been up in many places across the country since the pandemic hit, and Republicans see it as a pretty powerful issue to hammer on ahead of next year's elections.

CHANG: And then President Biden weighed in last week - right? - saying he would not step in on the district's behalf even though he is an advocate for statehood. How did that affect this debate?

AUSTERMUHLE: I mean, it was a political earthquake in the district. There was this assumption that, even though the House had voted against the city and the Senate was moving in that same direction on this new criminal code, Biden would just use his veto power. He is a supporter of statehood, after all. But he didn't. And the political calculus here is that he sees how crime could be an unpleasant issue for Democrats to deal with in next year's elections. Now, when the House voted on this issue last month, 31 Democrats sided with Republicans, and Republicans are already running ads against the ones who didn't, calling them soft on crime.

CHANG: So how have other Democrats responded?

AUSTERMUHLE: Well, they've mostly tried to duck the debate, honestly. There was only two senators who spoke today on behalf of the city. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said that the city's new criminal code actually increases many penalties and will make prosecuting crime easier. And Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen said there's a bigger philosophical point here - that Congress should not be interfering in the district's local affairs. Here's what he said.

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CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Its residents, its citizens are fully capable of deciding their own law and deciding their own future.

AUSTERMUHLE: Of course, not even President Biden has agreed with that principle in this case, and plenty of other Democrats in Congress aren't either.

CHANG: That is reporter Martin Austermuhle from member station WAMU. Thank you, Martin.

AUSTERMUHLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Austermuhle is a reporter in WAMU’s newsroom. He covers politics, development, education, social issues, and crime, among other things. Austermuhle joined the WAMU staff in April 2013 as a web producer and reporter. Prior to that, he served as editor-in-chief for DCist.com. He has written for the Washington City Paper, Washington Diplomat and other publications.