DC Attempts To Repeal Antiquated Laws Through Reevaluation Of Criminal Codes

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

There are many laws on the books, both at the state and federal levels, that are not relevant in today’s world, yet they still exist. Some are not even valued or enforced anymore, while others may be antiquated but are still followed; this is why DC’s Commission is recommending that the legislature goes through the Criminal Code and changes those laws which are no longer reasonable. The Washington, DC, Criminal Code Reform Commission has set its sights on modernizing the District’s Criminal laws.



Mayor Muriel Bowser has given the commission until October of this year to make amendments and changes to those laws that no longer have appropriate language for today’s society. The commission’s report has made specific recommendations to modernize the criminal code, and it has bipartisan support. The aim is to:

  • Repeal those laws which are antiquated and clearly archaic in the criminal statutes
  • Strike any statutes which are unconstitutional or no longer enforced
  • Replace phrases and words that are no longer used with more clear and direct language
  • Strike any extraneous non-criminal provisions in Title 22 of the Washington, DC Code


Among the archaic statutes are such things as “playing games in the street.” Currently, it is an actual crime to play games with another person in the streets, alleys, and avenues around the District of Columbia. If they were enforced, these laws would limit things like playing soccer and frisbee and would outlaw football. But in the criminal defense Harrisburg code, they are called things like “shinty” and “bandy,” two words which are rarely, if ever, found in the English language.

The Commission additionally made a recommendation to abolish crimes that were judge-decided, like “neglect escape,” decided upon in 1901, and any other crimes that currently remain unidentified. The reason is that common law should have definite penalties to eliminate the possibility that people can be prosecuted for things that haven’t been prosecuted in decades. To make things fair and equitable, if something is no longer enforced, then it should be stricken from the criminal code so that it can’t be reintroduced unfairly.


The Commission also requires that lawmakers seek to amend 37 statutes with obsolete references to current usage. Things like Corporation Counsel, which is now referred to as an attorney, should be updated so that everyone there is a standard in understanding of laws and statutes in the state.


There are also places where criminal statutes have no logical order and they intermix with civil ones, which makes it very difficult to determine which are crimes and which are not. The report believes that putting clearer definitions on the criminal code will make it easier for both law enforcement and citizens to understand what their obligations are and if they are breaking the law unwittingly or not.


This is not a new concept. Toward the end of the Reagan administration, there was already an argument that there was a need to both rationalize and simplify federal criminal laws because it was in the public’s best interest. But over thirty years later, the task has still not been undertaken. Although the groundwork has been put in motion, many believe that revamping the criminal code in Washington is long overdue.


Although it’s a great step forward, the Washington Commission has a huge undertaking on their hands. Many laws remain on the books that have no relevance in today’s society, with jargons that you would need a dictionary to define — if you could at all. To make sure that the law reflects society and that individuals know what their rights and responsibilities are, it is imperative that the law books be cleaned up. Just like in an old attic, many things are no longer needed, there are things that should have been thrown out decades ago, and laws that remain even though they aren’t enforced anymore.


A major reorganization of the criminal code is in order if the Trump Administration and the rest of the nation are truly committed to the return to law and order promised in the campaign season. Washington might just be one area, set to tackle the hurdles of updating their statutes, but it’s likely that it should be done nationwide. If it’s successful in DC that could be a great starting point for a nationwide initiative.


Hugh Howerton