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Democrats Removing Mandatory Minimum Sentences in Virginia

Police officers
Two police officers stand outside the Virginia Capitol in 2019. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Democrats in the General Assembly are on the way to removing mandatory minimum sentences from Virginia’s law books. It’s part of a handful of progressive criminal justice reforms they set out to tackle this session. Advocates say mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime, as they are purported to do, and they tie the hands of judges and juries, who are expected to use discretion in sentencing.

The Senate has passed a bill, SB 1443, which would do away with nearly all of Virginia’s mandatory minimum sentences, ranging from traffic violations to violent felony offenses.The Virginia State Crime Commission recommended the legislation last month, shortly before the legislative session began. 

This bill does not include Class 1 felonies, for which the sentence is death or life without the possibility of parole.

Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke), the lawmaker who carried the bill, said the state already has sentencing guidelines, a suggested range of sentencing options for certain crimes. He stressed the importance of allowing judges to exercise their judgement.

“Two things the Supreme Court has said are important in sentencing; one, the nature and history of the defendant and the nature and extent of the crime. These are the things you look at at sentencing,” Edwards said. “The General Assembly is not in the position to say you’ve got to have a mandatory minimum. It doesn’t work. It’s unjust.”

Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) opposed the bill.

“How about the rape of a child?” Obenshain asked during a hearing last week. “Does this repeal the mandatory minimum for that?

Edwards repeated his reasoning for the major policy shift, saying,“The appropriate sentencing would be an individualized sentencing, based on the facts of each case.”

Obenshain complained that the majority party is unraveling years of work to keep repeat violators of protective orders and child pornography behind bars.

He argued mandatory minimum sentences create some uniformity in the sentencing process.

“We’re going to see that sentences that are going to be handed down in criminal cases in one part of the state are going to be vastly different from sentences that are going to be handed down in other parts of the state,” Obenshain said.

“I think it’s already happening anyway. You do see huge differences in sentencing,” said. Margaret Breslau, who is with several criminal justice reform groups in the state, including Coalition for Justice.

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

“The judges' hands are tied and then the power shifts to the prosecutors really. The judges have to work within the confines of a mandatory minimum,” she said. 

“We need to have decisions made in our courtrooms on a case by case basis. We need to look at all the factors and we need fair sentencing,” Breslau said. 

The House of Delegates has advanced a bill that focuses on drug offenses but preserves mandatory penalties for violent crimes and sex offenses. The measure would allow those people who are currently serving a mandatory minimum sentence to petition the court for a sentence reduction. The Senate version of the bill would create a workgroup to study the feasibility of resentencing.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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