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The Heart of America Must Now Become an Official State

Washington, DC, is practically a colony on American soil. Its citizens lack proper voting rights, and the federal government can eliminate its local government at any time. This injustice has caused a severe spike in crime, seedy marijuana distribution and a lack of support for abortion services. To fix this, DC needs statehood.
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June 27, 2024 06:48 EDT

When we think of America’s sordid history of colonization, we envision far-away islands and people of different histories and cultures. However, one of our longest-existing colonies is located right at the heart of the nation. I am talking about our very capital.

Washington, DC, is treated essentially as a colony by our federal government. The people here have no voting representation in the federal legislature. Congress has allowed it to establish a local government. However, because DC is entirely federal land, the legislature can and regularly does overturn our local laws. In fact, Congress could completely abolish DC’s local government at any time if it wanted to. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for that if he wins the election this November.

What Washington is currently enduring is taxation without representation. This is exactly what our founding fathers fought a revolution to end. There are almost 700,000 tax-paying residents in our nation’s capital, all of whom are denied the right to vote in federal elections. That is more than the voting populations of Vermont or Wyoming and about the same as that of Alaska.

This lack of voting rights is a grave injustice. And it is not just an abstract democratic concern. There are real consequences to Washingtonians’ everyday lives due to our colonial status, including to public safety, marijuana regulation and abortion services.

DC’s colonial status increases our crime rate

The most visible consequence is DC’s high crime rate compared to many other large cities. Because we are a district and not a state, we do not control our criminal justice system. All adult felonies — which are the vast majority of serious crimes committed in DC — are prosecuted by the federal US Attorney for the District of Columbia. The head of that office is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. DC residents have no control over this official. All local crimes are brought before judges also appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. DC controls only our police department and the prosecution of adult misdemeanors and juvenile crimes.

Because our chief prosecutor — currently Matthew Graves — is not accountable to the people, there is little pressure on him to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. Maybe that is why he charged only 33% of arrestees in 2022 with crimes. In any other jurisdiction, a chief prosecutor who did this during a crime spike would have been kicked from office at the next election or fired by a mayor who was worried about her own job. Alas, we do not have that option in DC.

Perhaps Graves deserves some leeway, though, because he is not working under a system designed for success. Having the prosecutor answer to the president and the police department answer to the mayor is a recipe for poor coordination. That is exactly what we’ve concocted.

Graves insists that the low charging rate is at least partly due to the DC police’s inability to legally secure admissible evidence, thus preventing the prosecutor from proving arrestees guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. The police respond that the prosecutor is using this as an excuse to avoid doing his job. Regardless of who is correct, the two sides clearly do not work well together. If both were working under the same government, there would be far fewer coordination challenges.

In addition to this failure, there is a long-running judicial vacancy crisis occurring in DC. Confirming judges for the local court is the Senate’s last priority, regardless of which party controls it. We have gone years at a time without being able to fill vacancies. In 2022, this issue became so severe that DC’s local court wrote a letter to the Senate urging the confirmation of more judges, lest the system completely break down.

While things have improved slightly since then, DC still has a vast number of vacancies. As a result, trials take longer to complete here than in any other jurisdiction in the country. When Washingtonians complain that suspects are arrested but rarely face consequences, this is often what they are seeing: criminal suspects being released pending trial while their case waits years for a trial date.

All of this drives DC’s high crime rate. If criminals know they may be arrested but are not likely to be prosecuted, it stands to reason that they will be more likely to commit crimes. Hundreds of people are killed in homicide cases every year, and countless more are injured and traumatized.

If DC became a state, we would get full control of our criminal justice system and could eliminate these inefficiencies and structural problems. We could better address this problem if only our government had that kind of autonomy.

Marijuana unregulated and abortions unsubsidized

DC’s colonial status has impacted peoples’ everyday lives in other ways. For one, in 2014, Congress prohibited DC from legalizing the sale of marijuana after voters passed a ballot measure for its legalization. Because Congress could not stop DC from legalizing the possession or use of it, we now see abundant “gifting” shops around the city. These retailers “gift” marijuana to customers after they buy another item.

These shops are unregulated, so buyers do not know what they are going to get from their purchase. They sometimes end up with a much stronger product than they expected. Further, because of their gray market status the government cannot issue proper safety regulations for these shops, which have become targets of crime that impacts the whole community. Finally, because marijuana is treated like a free commodity and not taxed, our local government loses out on the millions of dollars that could come from district-wide sales.

In another consequence of colonialism, since 2011, Congress has prevented DC from using own local tax dollars to subsidize abortions for low-income women. A 2013 report by the Guttmacher Institute estimates that 70% of pregnancies here are unintended. Without access to government support for low-income women receiving abortions, thousands of unwanted pregnancies persist.

Ending America’s last mainland colony

The list of injustices goes on. To rectify these and improve the quality of life for Washingtonians, we need statehood. This is not a radical or unprecedented demand. Every other democracy in the world has had to consider what status its capital’s residents should have. Nearly every one has granted voting rights in both the regional and national legislature to those citizens. If other countries have made these rights for residents of their capital city work, there is no reason America could not.

Fortunately, this problem has a relatively easy solution: Congress could pass a bill making Washington DC an official state, and the president should then sign it into law. This would not involve abolishing the federal district. Congress would simply restrict the federal district to a much smaller area, while creating a new state out of the federal land where the vast majority of Washingtonians live — something that is perfectly within its ordinary power to do. No constitutional amendment would be required; just a regular bill, like the legislature passes dozens of times each year.

This bill is currently under consideration in Congress. It carves out the National Mall area plus a few blocks surrounding it and keeps that zone under the federal government’s control. So the federal government would still exercise full control over the Capitol, the White House, the national memorials, many offices for federal workers and almost every Smithsonian Museum. The rest of our current District of Columbia would become the state of “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” named after famous abolitionist and DC resident Frederick Douglass.

DC residents deserve the same representation as any American. These are inalienable rights, something the Declaration of Independence insists we all share — for “all men are created equal.” And though many Americans have not truly enjoyed identical rights across our nation’s history, our story is one of continual progress toward the realization of this ideal.

The colonial status of our capital city is one of the most glaring areas where our nation still fails to live up to its founding creed. We must continue the fundamentally American task of closing the gaps between reality and equality by granting statehood and full voting rights to the almost 700,000 residents living here. We must end colonial injustice, allowing Washingtonians to claim their proper representation and become America’s 51st state.

[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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