Virginia Democrats crafting bill to abolish most mandatory minimum sentences


Democratic lawmakers are drafting legislation to abolish most mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia after a recommendation from the Virginia Crime Commission.

“[Mandatory minimum laws] straightjacket the judges, maybe, into something they wouldn’t (otherwise) do,” Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, told The Center Square.

Edwards, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his office is drafting language for a bill he will introduce into the Senate, and House Democrats also are working on a version to introduce into their chamber.

A mandatory minimum sentence in state law provides a minimum punishment for certain crimes. If a mandatory minimum sentence is in place, a judge’s hands are tied, and he or she cannot issue a lighter sentence based on individual circumstances. Supporters say this ensures criminals receive a proper sentence for certain crimes, but opponents say it ignores that every case is unique.

Edwards said his bill will eliminate a significant number of mandatory minimum sentences and keep them in place for only the most serious of crimes. He said his staff is working on compiling the list of mandatory minimum sentences to keep, but crimes such as murder still would carry a mandatory minimum sentence under the bill.

Mandatory minimum sentences don’t allow for a mercy mentality, Edwards said, and they don’t take into consideration whether someone is desperately poor, suffering from abuse or whether there are other extraordinary or mitigating circumstances. He said judges should use sentencing guidelines when crafting a sentence, but they also should be able to consider specifics about the individual and the case.

“Let the judges and the juries do their jobs,” Edwards said.

The legislation is being drafted after a recommendation from the Virginia Crime Commission to abolish all mandatory minimum sentence laws in the state. The commission voted on the endorsement with all nine Democrats supporting it and both Republicans voting against it.

According to the commission’s findings, the criminal justice system yields higher sentences for Black males than it does for white males. Hispanic males also receive higher sentences than white males but not as high as Black males. The commission also supported legislation that would allow some people serving mandatory minimum sentences to petition a judge to have their sentence reconsidered.

Republicans were quick to criticize the commission’s recommendation, which did not suggest including any exceptions.

“We knew Democrats thought Virginia’s criminal justice system was too tough on killers, robbers and child molesters,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement. “But the fact that they would put their victims through another round of trauma should shock the conscience of every Virginian.

“Furthermore, consistent with their insatiable desire to lay the responsibility for gun violence at the feet of law-abiding citizens, this Democrat proposal will remove mandatory penalties for actual gun crimes and take away a proven tool in actually reducing gun crimes and improving the quality of life in the most dangerous neighborhoods in our Commonwealth.”

Bills to abolish most mandatory minimum sentences were introduced into the General Assembly during last year’s special session, which yielded a plethora of criminal justice reforms. Legislation to abolish most mandatory minimums was temporarily halted, pending recommendations from the commission.

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