2021-2-8

Virginia lawmakers advance bills eliminating mandatory minimums

By Aaron Royce, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly advanced criminal justice reform measures that would eliminate mandatory minimums in favor of allowing judges more sentencing discretion. 

Senate Bill 1443, introduced by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, narrowly passed Friday on a 21-17 vote. 

The bill proposes to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences in Virginia for various crimes, including aggravated involuntary manslaughter, child pornography and violating a protective order for abuse victims. The legislation does not include Class 1 felonies such as willful and deliberate murder. 

Lawmakers in support of the bill emphasized that judges should be trusted to deliver the appropriate sentences without utilizing a sentencing policy that they say has been abused. Critics said the bill dismantled the criminal justice policies in place after years of deliberation.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said during the bill’s committee hearing last month that mandatory minimum charges have proliferated like “crazy” during his two decades as an attorney, especially for DUIs. 

“People pay a lot of money to stay out of jail,” Surovell said. 

He added that mandatory minimums force people who have legitimate defenses to plead guilty because the consequences of losing are too great. Surovell also said juries aren’t informed of mandatory minimums before they issue sentencing recommendations. 

Under the Senate bill, crimes such as DUI charges or illegal gun possession by a felon also would have mandatory minimums removed.

The nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program, or WRAP, worries that the bill lessens penalties for egregious drunk drivers. The current bill eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and those with high blood alcohol concentration. The organization requested the bill be amended, but it was not.

“I don’t know if people really recognize the disproportionate carnage that these two types of drunk drivers are responsible for, both in Virginia and nationally,” WRAP CEO Kurt Erickson said in an interview. He said those examples “are not the standard DUI offenses.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is also opposed to the bill. The organization said shorter sentences won’t adequately punish drunk drivers for their actions. 

Tinsae Gabriel, deputy policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said criminologists have long made it clear that it is the certainty of being caught and punished quickly and not the severity of the mandatory sentence that deters crime. 

“I also want to emphasize that repealing mandatory sentences does not mean people go without accountability,” she said. “What it means is that judges who are selected by the General Assembly and who are informed by guidelines would be able to consider all relevant facts and circumstances about a case before they impose an appropriate sentence, instead of a ‘one size fits all’ punishment.”

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance’s policy director Jonathan Yglesias echoed similar support. Yglesias said mandatory minimums provide “little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders.”

Yglesias said he thinks the bill is timely also, given that domestic and sexual violence cases have occurred “far more often” since the pandemic. Erickson said, however, that Virginia’s drunk driving fatalities also rose from 249 to 253 last year, even with less people on the roads.

The Senate bill directs the secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to create a work group composed of lawyers, correction’s officials and other stakeholders to study the feasibility of resentencing persons who previously received a mandatory minimum sentence. The report is due in November. 

The House advanced its version Friday with less debate on a 58-42 vote. Introduced by Del. Michael P. Mullin, D-Newport News, House Bill 2331 also eliminates mandatory minimums for many crimes. 

The bill establishes sentence lengths for the second-offense of drug trafficking. The second offense would be not less than 10 years but no more than 40 years. The bill eliminated the requirement that the second offense be served consecutively with any other sentence. 

The House measure will allow eligible persons still serving a mandatory minimum for certain felony convictions to petition the court for a sentence reduction.

Now the bills head to other chambers where the differences will be resolved. Surovell cited a report that estimates eliminating mandatory minimums could save taxpayers $80 million every five years. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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