WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today applauds the Council’s passage of several important pieces of criminal justice reform and civil rights legislation, including the Omnibus Public Safety and Justice Amendment Act of 2020 and the Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act of 2020. The Omnibus Public Safety and Justice Amendment Act is a package of justice reforms. It contains the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment, which allows judges to review the sentences of people who committed crimes before the age of 25 and have already served at least 15 years in prison. Judges can reduce a long sentence if they find that an individual is no longer a danger to the community. The Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act reforms the District’s hate crime laws and clarifies that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has authority to bring civil enforcement actions against those who commit hate crimes in the District. OAG sought this authority because the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) has previously failed to criminally prosecute those offenses as bias-motivated crimes.
“The Council’s actions to combat hate and discrimination, reduce destructive mass incarceration, and advance justice for all is particularly timely after a weekend when divisiveness, vitriol, and bias-motivated violence came to the District of Columbia.” said AG Racine. “I applaud Chairman Charles Allen’s bold leadership on these issues. I look forward to fully enforcing these laws to ensure that the District is a fairer and more just place for all and to send a clear message that hate has no place here.”
Criminal Justice Reform Legislation
The Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment, which was passed as part of the Omnibus Public Safety and Justice Amendment Act, allows judicial review of long sentences for individuals who committed crimes when they were younger than 25 and who already have served at least 15 years of their sentence. These individuals may apply for a reduction in their sentence, which a judge can grant if they find that the individual is not a danger to the community and that sentence reduction is in the interest of justice. In making these findings, the judge must consider a range of information, including any statement provided by the victim. It has long been recognized that children should be treated differently by courts because their brains are not fully developed, and the poor choices that they make are not reflective of their future behavior as mature adults. Research shows that this also is true for young people between the ages of 18-25. This law allows courts, guided by science and data, to revisit long sentences imposed on young people, which have disproportionately harmed the District’s Black communities.
Civil Rights Reform Legislation
The Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act of 2020 contains several critical reforms to the District’s hate crime laws, including a ban on the so-called “gay panic” defense under which criminal defendants can use a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity to reduce the seriousness of their offense. The law also contains a provision that allows OAG to bring civil lawsuits against individuals who commit bias-motivated crimes. AG Racine introduced an earlier version of this bill in October 2019 after USAO failed to criminally prosecute hate crimes over the previous four years. Once enacted, this legislation will allow the Attorney General to file lawsuits against the perpetrators of bias-motivated violence and seek civil penalties, restitution, and other legal relief for both the victim and the District. The law will allow OAG to take civil action regardless of whether the United States Attorney brings a criminal case. This law brings District law in line with other jurisdictions that have strong protections for victims of hate crimes and is part of a national anti-hate initiative launched by AG Racine as president of the National Association of Attorneys General.
The hate crimes bill also clarifies that District law prohibits discrimination by businesses that operate online but provide goods or services in the District. The District’s Human Rights Act (DCHRA) prohibits discrimination based on protected traits in employment, housing, educational institutions, and public accommodations (businesses and other institutions and organizations that are generally open to the public). Protected traits include race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, political affiliation, and place of residence. In a recent case, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals suggested that to be a public accommodation, a business needed maintain a brick-and-mortar facility in the District. OAG filed an amicus brief in that case arguing that the anti-discrimination law should apply to all businesses that provide goods or services in the District, regardless of whether they maintain a physical location. After the D.C. Circuit did not adopt that view in the case, OAG worked with the Council to introduce legislative language to clarify that District law broadly outlaws discrimination by all businesses.
In addition to these provisions, OAG applauds the Council’s passage of other important measures to protect District residents, including bills that help eradicate source-of-income discrimination, increase protections for survivors of domestic violence, and ensure that the District is not overly entangled in federal immigration enforcement.