Statement: Councilmember Robert White on the Council’s Vote to Override the Mayor’s Veto of the Revised Criminal Code

Today, I joined with Council colleagues and voted to overturn the Mayor’s veto of the revised criminal code because I do not believe that throwing it out keeps us safe. Like most District residents, I am alarmed by the shootings and violence that seem to be increasing. For families who have lost loved ones, I know that nothing can fill that void. Everyone in every neighborhood deserves to feel safe.

I voted to override the Mayor’s veto because the current 120-year-old criminal code has not improved safety. Sadly, that fact unfolds in front of us every day in DC. I believe we have an obligation to take a better approach that results in less crime. The Mayor’s veto of the criminal code bill that was crafted through the work of experts over the course of 16 years signals an intent to continue to use a public safety strategy that is not working.

There must be consequences for crime. And for some crimes, the revised code increases penalties, including for assault rifle and ghost gun possession. But overly harsh penalties by themselves do not deter crime, and overincarceration and excessively long sentences often have the effect of increasing crime and poverty over time. That is why penalties are only part of the public safety equation.

Making our neighborhoods safe requires a holistic approach. We need accountability for those committing violence and we need police to respond to and investigate crime. For too long, this has come at the expense of expanding mental health services to address the trauma of kids and families losing loved ones too soon, afterschool programs to keep students out of trouble, and job training and economic opportunities to right the wrong of generations of underinvestment in the communities experiencing the most violence today. Public safety is not an either-or proposition.  

The US imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than anywhere else in the world, and the District imprisons a higher percentage of its population than anywhere in the US; yet crime and violence persist. Clearly, we need new ideas. On my mind as we discuss ways to achieve public safety are the two million people in prisons and jails in the US, including 58% of all women in US prisons who are mothers and 47% of men who are fathers. There are consequences for both incarcerated people and their families that will come from how we react today on public safety. That is why I believe our response to public safety must be holistic.

We can stop crime before it happens through comprehensive mental health support for District residents of all ages to end the cycle of untreated trauma. Next week, I will reintroduce the Pathways to Behavioral Health Degrees Act, and will fight to get this passed and funded this year. This bill would build the District’s pipeline of behavioral health specialists by funding a Master of Social Work degree program at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and making it free for DC residents and employees who have bachelor’s degrees to attend with a scholarship covering tuition, books, and a monthly stipend for living expenses and transportation. I will use every lever I have – legislation, oversight, and budgeting – to ensure people committing crimes are held accountable so residents feel safe in the short term and I will fight to lay the groundwork for a future where we’ve eradicated the root causes of violence.

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