Guest Commentary: Criminal Justice Reform Means Reforming Punishment, Too

By Sonora Bostian-Posner

D.C.’s criminal justice system has gotten a lot of national attention — but not in a good way. The D.C. City Council recently voted to revise the District’s 100-year-old criminal code. The measure was vetoed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, but the Council had enough votes to override the veto. Now the measure is being challenged by Congress, with the House of Representatives voting to overturn the measure (one of the joys of D.C. not being a state — the federal government can do that).

The fate of the law now rests on the actions of the Senate and President Joe Biden. The latter has said he disapproves of overturning the law, though he has not yet promised to veto the law’s overturning. In the meantime, though, another law has been introduced to combat D.C.’s crime problem: one that seeks to increase the number of active police. Mayor Bowser has voiced her support of this bill despite it not being on her desk yet.

It’s disconcerting to see Mayor Bowser fall on the predictable message of “We need more police” while disapproving of revisions to the D.C. criminal code. Safety isn’t just about increasing punishment — true safety includes the reformation of punishment. Unjust sentences, unsafe prisons, and a lack of opportunities for returning citizens all impact our public safety. Yet the only thing government officials seem to want to publicly voice support for is increasing the number of arrests and the number of people who can punish those committing crimes. (It is also interesting that this approach is being considered when Ward 4’s police commander was quoted as saying, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”)

The Council’s revision of D.C.’s criminal code was an excellent step towards increased public safety — and is needed at least as much as a bolstering of the District’s police force. The updates included an extension of D.C.’s Second Look Law, allowing more people in prison a chance to have their sentence reduced after 20 years; and eliminating several mandatory minimums. None of these changes would increase D.C.’s crime problems, and in all likelihood, would make the city safer by providing more people with more chances to succeed and live a good life.

D.C.’s crime problems, like those of anywhere else in the country, are multifaceted. The approach to solving them should be as well. Giving all of one’s enthusiastic support to the police department is misguided and ultimately too small to expect any real, tangible change to public safety. We need to reform punishment, too. D.C.’s revision of the criminal justice code needs to be allowed to remain law, not just for our safety, but to do what’s right.

Sonora Bostian-Posner is FAMM’s Director of Digital Communications.  Originally published by FAMM on Medium.


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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