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D.C. Council passed an emergency crime bill. Here’s what it would do.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser arrives for a news conference to address the recent uptick in violent crime and push for legislation to address it. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The pressure’s on: As D.C. confronts a violent summer, the mayor and city council are banking on new legislation to reduce crime — and fast.

On Tuesday, the city council passed an emergency bill that adds a new gun crime and makes it easier for judges to detain people charged with violent crimes while they’re awaiting trial. That legislation, introduced by Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), will go into effect for 90 days, as soon as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signs it.

Meanwhile, Bowser has another, similar bill that she hopes will offer more long-term solutions to the city’s crime problem. The council is expected to consider that legislation in the fall, after returning from summer recess.

As of mid-July, violent crime in D.C. — which includes robberies and homicides — was up 33 percent compared to the same time last year, though it has not risen to the same levels as in the 1980s and 1990s. The problem is especially acute among young people in D.C.

Here is what you should know about the emergency bill and Bowser’s longer-term proposal:

New crimes and penalties

The Pinto emergency legislation adds a new felony strangulation offense, which carries a punishment of up to five years in prison, intended to protect potential victims of domestic violence. The penalties are enhanced if the victim was seriously injured, if a protection or restraining order was in place against the accused strangler, or if the person was convicted of another crime against a family member or partner, or a similar offense, in the past five years.

The legislation also establishes a new gun crime, endangerment with a firearm, for firing a gun in public, which carries a punishment of up to two years behind bars.

Bowser’s bill similarly adds the strangulation offense but has a different set of proposals on gun crimes. Her legislation would increase local penalties for some gun offenses — such as illegal discharge of a firearm — and add new gun offenses of possession of a firearm with a removed or altered serial number and possessing a stolen firearm.

Bowser’s bill would also allow for more severe punishment for crimes against public transportation passengers and employees, and for offenses committed on property run by the D.C. Department of Recreation.

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Expands pretrial detention for adults

In the District, people who get arrested are generally released before trial — unless there is “clear and convincing” evidence that they pose a flight risk or a danger to the community. But in certain circumstances, the law asks judges to presume a person should be detained before trial, including when people are charged with committing a violent crime while armed, or while already out awaiting trial.

Both Pinto’s and Bowser’s bills would expand the circumstances under which judges would presume they should detain defendants. Pinto’s bill would include all adults charged with any crime of violence, whether armed or not. (See a list here.) Bowser’s is narrower. It would only include adults charged with a crime of violence who were previously convicted of a violent offense. In both cases, the burden would then fall on the accused to argue why they should not be detained, and judges could still decide to release them.

Expands pretrial detention for youths

The question of how the justice system should treat kids and teenagers who are accused of committing crimes is one of the most controversial in D.C. Will detaining kids accused of committing serious crimes deter other kids from doing the same thing, and keep the public safe? Or does incarceration of any kind actually make those children and teens more likely to commit another crime?

Under current District law, kids charged with committing a violent offense while armed already face a presumption that they should be detained pretrial. Both pieces of legislation would expand that presumption to include more youths, but Pinto’s bill is far narrower than Bowser’s.

Bowser’s legislation would make it easier for judges to detain kids charged with virtually any dangerous or violent crime, regardless of whether they were armed. Her bill would also allow judges to detain a child for their own protection. Many consider that one of the proposal’s most controversial provisions, and Pinto eliminated it from her emergency legislation after objections.

Pinto’s bill, though, adds certain unarmed crimes for which kids can be detained pretrial, including murder, carjacking, sexual assault or assault with intent to commit any of those crimes.

Who gets a second chance?

Right now in D.C., people who were incarcerated for crimes they committed before they were 25 years old are eligible for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years. Bowser’s legislation would impose new hurdles on these people asking to be released — by, for example, explicitly instructing the judge to consider whether the defendant has remorse and the “nature” of the original offense.

At least a dozen people testified against that provision in Bowser’s bill during a public hearing, saying that people who have come home after years in prison have become community leaders. Pinto, citing the testimony, decided to leave that provision out of her bill.

More options to track people (and more cameras)

Both Bowser’s and Pinto’s legislation would allow GPS data to be used as evidence of guilt against a defendant in court. Bowser’s legislation would additionally require agencies that supervise people on pretrial release, probation or parole to provide the D.C. police department with GPS monitoring data if detectives say the data is “necessary in conducting a criminal law enforcement investigation.”

Both Bowser’s and Pinto’s bills increase incentives to buy and update private security cameras through a city-run rebate program for residents and business owners.


A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the ward that Council member Brooke Pinto represents. She represents Ward 2, not Ward 4. The article has been updated.