Any person asked about the wave of crime in D.C. has a different answer. Republicans and tough-on-crime advocates blame Democratic leaders, such as members of the D.C. City Council or Mayor Muriel Bowser, for a lack of response to the crime epidemic.
Federal officials like congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) believe the problem lies in the district’s inability to govern itself while also pointing to a shrinking police force unable to respond to every crime.
Washington, D.C., is unique in that it is arguably the slowest city to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, aside from San Francisco, after the public health emergency led to a rise in criminal activity. A series of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing discrimination in recent years has come under fire for going too far and allowing criminals to avoid arrest and jail time.
Here’s a look at where D.C. is now and what could be contributing to the crime wave.
Crime statistics in the District
All crime, in total, is up 28% in the District of Columbia from this time last year. Broken down by area of crime, D.C. is only stagnant or seeing a decrease in two areas.
D.C. breaks its crime reports into two sections: Violent crime and property crime. Violent crimes include homicide, sex abuse, assault with a deadly weapon, and robbery. In all four of these areas, crime has increased — most significantly in homicide and robbery, at 35% and 70%, respectively. Violent crime in total has increased by 40%.
Ahead of 2023, data predicted that, while violent crime would be on the decline, the year would see a surge in motor vehicle theft and other less deadly property crimes across major cities.
D.C. is no exception. Motor vehicle theft is up 103%, with almost double the number of incidents this year compared to last year. Total property crimes are up 26% from last year.
The question is easy — Why is crime up? — but the answer is harder to pinpoint. Many point to D.C.’s lack of statehood, a limited police presence, and criminal justice reforms as reasons.
Juvenile criminals and policies
What is particularly plaguing D.C. is a rise in juvenile criminals and a lack of strong policies to detain or prosecute them.
The Metropolitan Police Department reported that 376 juveniles were charged with violent crimes for all of 2022. In the first six months of 2023, 363 juveniles were charged with the same thing — a 47% increase, per D.C. WUSA9.
Many victims of crimes have been minors themselves. As of Aug. 31, a total of 81 minors were shot in the city in 2023, compared with 66 over the same span in 2022 and 37 in 2021, per the Washington Post.
Attention has swiveled to D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb, who fought against the “Get Tough on Crime” bill supported by Bowser that would have increased pretrial detentions for dangerous juvenile offenders.
“[We’ve seen] increases in categories like carjacking and otherwise … we have not seen a corresponding increase in commitment,” Lindsey Appiah, deputy mayor for public safety, said during a public hearing in February.
Juveniles who are released after committing a crime often become repeat offenders. Schwalb dropped charges against an 11-year-old boy related to assault and robbery, but the child was arrested again for armed robbery less than two weeks later.
Schwalb has actively touted programs of restorative justice and rehabilitation over incarceration, a method preferred by liberal prosecutors and officials, and pushed back against tougher detention sentences.
“Several provisions of this proposed legislation, however, are problematic. They default back to the flawed assumption that easier and lengthier incarceration, both pretrial and after adjudication, will improve public safety,” Schwalb said in public testimony against the Safer Stronger Amendment of 2023. “In doing so, the provisions fail to heed the painful lessons our history teaches: That unnecessary or unnecessarily lengthy incarceration does not make us safer.”
Washington, D.C., despite operating as a state, performs the same functions as a city and county. However, the Constitution dictates that the district should be under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress — something Norton says is one of the main issues D.C. has in its ability to fight crime.
“It has no control over its criminal justice system,” Norton said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. “It’s a home rule problem. Until we get statehood, we won’t have complete control over our criminal justice system.”
The D.C. delegate, who can vote in committee but cannot vote on the House floor, has brought forward a bill to give D.C. statehood in the last two Congresses, with the measures passing the House each time thanks to a Democratic majority. With a GOP majority in the current Congress, however, Norton has been unable to bring a statehood bill to the floor for a vote this year.
By not giving D.C. statehood, Norton said, it places the blame on Congress, not the district.
“When Congress has control over that system, it needs to take responsibility for what’s happened to crime. And it has control,” Norton said. “Until we get statehood, we cannot assume that the district should assume full responsibility.
“I think we’d have a much better chance at doing what other states and cities are doing because they have control over their criminal justice system as the district does not, and they have been able to lower crime,” the congresswoman added.
D.C.’s lack of control over bills and measures
When asked what the D.C. City Council could be doing to either renew or replace the emergency public safety bill it passed in July, Norton stayed true to her belief that no one but the district should make that decision.
“It’s not my job or anybody in Congress to put anything to it,” Norton said. “We got to go with what the city understands is best for the city.”
Washington, D.C.’s criminal code, like all legislation coming out of the district, is subject to congressional oversight. In February and March, the House and Senate voted to overturn an overhaul of the criminal code, marking the first time in 30 years that Congress has repealed a local law passed by the D.C. Council.
Congressional Republicans have zeroed in on the Democratic-controlled district as a spotlight for the effects of liberal crime policies. In the House now, an appropriations rider would allow for all people with a concealed carry permit to conceal carry in D.C., regardless if the permit did not come from the district.
“If anything, D.C. is handicapped by doing something about crime, and Congress, with this appropriation matter I just pointed out, can increase crime in the District of Columbia because it has control of the District of Columbia,” Norton said, adding that allowing more guns onto the district’s streets is going to make the crime problem worse.
Shrinking police force
Norton also pointed to a 50-year low in the police force as a reason for such high crime numbers.
She said that she can’t pinpoint why specific crimes go up while some go down, but she said she can “only relate that to the lack of police to do something about it.
“I’m going to assume that it’s difficult to patrol a big city with a lot of crime. So to do that, the city is paying people, essentially, to sign up to be police officers in the District of Columbia,” Norton said. “I think that’s an indication of how difficult it is for the city to rise above the crime rate here.”