Legislation to remove most mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday through a 9-6 party-line vote.
Senate Bill 1443 would end the mandatory minimum prison time for more than 200 crimes in the Commonwealth that carry the specific punishments, including assault and battery, rape and other sexual crimes, drug distribution and possession, child pornography as well as driving under the influence (DUI).
Specifically, the bill would remove the mandatory minimum prison sentences of six months for assaulting a law-enforcement officer, five years for the distribution or possession with intent to sell marijuana and 25 years for the rape of a person against their will who is under 13-years-old, among others.
Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke City), who introduced the bill, called mandatory minimums “problematic,” and argued that judges in Virginia should and typically do follow already-established sentencing guidelines when handing down a punishment.
“The reason for this is we have sentencing guidelines that are very good,” Edwards said.
During the committee meeting, Edwards offered a substitute to the bill that leaves out any changes to the mandatory minimum sentences for capital murder or class one felonies, which are life imprisonment or the death penalty. However, a separate bill to abolish the death penalty was just advanced out of the committee last week.
The substitute also eliminates provisions regarding the resentencing of people who were previously convicted of a crime that carries a mandatory minimum punishment and establishes a work group convened by the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to study the feasibility of resentencing.
Other Democrats on the committee in favor of the legislation, like Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City), said judges will still have the ability to give strict sentences if merited by the crimes and the person that committed them.
“All this does is essentially say we’re going to give the judges the discretion that the constitution places in them, that’s all it does,” Morrissey said.
Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), who voted against the bill, asked several questions on which mandatory minimum sentences would be ended if the bill were to pass, specifically about alcohol-related DUI charges and instances involving repeat offenders within five years as well as violent felons caught in public with a firearm.
“This is really concerning,” McDougle said.
As part of his argument opposing the measure, McDougle brought up Project Exile, a federal program started in Richmond in 1997 to quell gun violence that prosecuted felons on firearm possession charges in federal courts where the mandatory minimum sentence was five years imprisonment.
Many people spoke in support of SB 1443 during the public comment period, arguing that mandatory minimum sentences don’t bring fairness to the criminal justice system and often scare defendants into taking plea deals to avoid lengthy prison terms.
“The current law literally bars, prohibits, the exercise of mercy and that’s something we shouldn’t do,” said Andy Elders, a public defender and board member of Justice Forward Virginia, a nonpartisan criminal justice advocacy organization.
Representatives from the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, New Virginia Majority and Virginia State Conference NAACP Political Action Committee also spoke in favor of passage.
Among those opposing the legislation was John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, who said they are especially against removing the mandatory minimums for assaulting law enforcement officers.
“We believe that SB 1443 sends the wrong message to the men and women that serve each day protecting Virginia’s citizens and their communities,” Jones said.
Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, thanked Edwards for the bill substitute before echoing Jones’ concerns regarding assault on law enforcement.
According to Justice Forward Virginia, the Commonwealth enacted its first mandatory minimum law back in 1968.
Monday’s passage of SB 1143 comes after the same committee killed a nearly identical bill from Edwards during the 2020 special session. Earlier this month, the Virginia State Crime Commission, consisting of mostly Democratic legislators, recommended the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.
The bill now heads to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee where the fiscal impact will be considered before being sent to the full legislative body.
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