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Prosecutors Group Opposes Bill to Take Sentencing Out of Jurors Hands

Man leans over table
Virginia State Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, right speaks during debate at the reconvene session to order at the Science Museum of Virginia, Wednesday April 22, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The Senate is meeting in a remote location due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool)

A group of Virginia prosecutors wants to stop a bill from passing that would have judges determine sentences in criminal cases, instead of juries. Virginia is one of only six states where juries decide guilt or innocence and also hand down sentences - even though juries aren’t given a range of recommended sentencing options.

Sen. Joe Morrissey’s bill would still provide that a criminal defendant be tried by a jury. But a judge would have the final say in the punishment.    

Morrissey said juries are often tougher on defendants than what state guidelines prescribe, which is why many take a plea deal rather than go to trial. And while judges have the authority to reduce a jury sentence, they rarely do. 

A group of 66 Commonwealth’s Attorneys across the state acknowledged a need for sentencing reform but urged the General Assembly to reject Morrissey’s bill. The group sent a letter to legislative leaders on Wednesday outlining why.  

“Jury sentencing is a direct way for the community to provide a voice in criminal cases, in the ultimate outcome of a criminal case,” said Chuck Slemp, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Wise County and the City of Norton. “Whether that be leniency or the opposite thereof.”

Slemp says the change will also result in a flood of jury trials, which he says will be expensive. 

And rather than throwing out the current system entirely, Slemp said it can be improved with what he called “common sense reforms”

“We allow a jury to consider the sentencing guidelines,”Slemp said. “We be completely transparent with juries. That way when they sentence an individual, they have all the information.”

Many Republicans oppose the bill. Sen. Mark Obenshain said earlier in the special session that the citizens of the Commonwealth should be able to hand down punishment for people who are prosecuted and convicted of crimes. 

Morrissey said the change would bring Virginia in line with dozens of other states that already put judges in charge of sentencing. And he rejected the notion that it would lead to increased costs.   

“Interestingly, the public defenders have met with their budget folks and they are not going to ask for one single additional public defender,” Morrissey said. “The prosecutors, on the other hand, are suggesting it’s going to be armageddon, they need new courthouses and new judges and new prosecutors. It doesn’t make sense.”

And Morrissey rejects the notion that juries won’t be involved in the process. 

“They get to determine guilt or innocence, but the one individual who is best equipped to sentence, the person who has the sentencing guidelines, the person who can have a full understanding of a victim impact statement, is the judge.”

The bill passed the full Senate and is now headed to the House Floor.


Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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