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Committee Advances End to Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Virginia State Capitol
The Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

A bill to end mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia cleared its first hurdle in the General Assembly Monday. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation 9-6, and referred it to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.  

Proponents of the bill say mandatory minimum sentences do not reduce crime, as they are purported to do. They also say they’re disproportionately imposed on people of color. According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, Black people have more mandatory minimum sentences than their white counterparts. Proponents of the change also say they tie the hands of judges and juries, who are expected to use discretion in sentencing. 

“The current law literally bars, prohibits, the exercise of mercy,” said Andy Elders, a public defender and member of the group Justice Forward Virginia. 

Elders said mandatory minimums also allow prosecutors to pressure defendants into taking plea deals instead of going to trial.

“If you're charged with one of those offenses and are not guilty, then you need every opportunity to be able to say, ‘I didn't do it, and I want my trial,’” Elders said. “And when you're faced with mandatory 5,10, 20 years or a mandatory life sentence, your ability to say, ‘I didn't do it,’ is compromised.”

The Virginia Sheriff’s Association opposes the bill, in particular, because it would do away with the mandatory minimum sentence that comes with assaulting a law enforcement officer. 

“We have all seen how words matter,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association. “We think this bill will matter by saying that it's not as serious as it used to be to assault a law enforcement officer.”

The legislation excludes Class 1 felonies, including murder, which are punishable by life imprisonment and death. 

The Secretary of Public Safety will convene a work group to study the feasibility of resentencing people previously convicted of a mandatory minimum offense. 

According to the Department of Corrections, 31% of people in state custody are serving mandatory minimum sentences, either alone or in combination with other offenses

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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