With a special session underway, the Democrat-controlled Virginia General Assembly will need to reconcile differences between House and Senate proposals on mandatory minimum sentencing to create a new law.
Both chambers advanced their respective proposals late last week, which means the different versions of the mandatory minimum legislation are heading into “crossover” so that each chamber considers the other’s bill.
The Senate’s version, introduced by Sen. John Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for more than 200 offenses, including aggravated involuntary manslaughter, violating a protective order, child pornography, driving under the influence and illegal gun possession. Not included are Class 1 felonies, such as capital murder of law enforcement.
The House version, introduced by Delegate Michael Mullin, Newport Democrat, also would eliminate far mandatory minimums than the Senate bill. It focuses largely on drug offenses but includes identify theft and illegal alcohol sales. It would leave mandatory minimums in place for DUIs, sex offenses and violent crimes.
In a hearing last month, Sen. Scott Surovell, Fairfax Democrat, said the list of mandatory minimum sentences had grown at a “crazy” pace during his time as an attorney.
Republicans have largely pushed back against the Democrats’ proposals, arguing — along with several law enforcement advocacy groups — that they’re a weak-on-crime approach.
“This initiative will not address perceived bias in the justice system and will only serve to force crime victims and their families to be re-victimized in the name of social justice,” Betsy Brantner Smith, spokeswoman for the National Police Association, told The Washington Times.
Advocates for ending mandatory minimum sentences argue that the current system doesn’t deter crime or uphold fairness, particularly with regard to race, and can hinder a defendant’s rights.
The Virginia State Crime Commission released data this year that showed that Black inmates are more likely than White inmates to be serving time on charges with mandatory minimum sentences, which ultimately don’t result in that many convictions.
Brad Haywood, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, said mandatory minimums are largely used for coercion.
“All the repeal of mandatory minimums would do is return the decision about what sentence someone should receive to a judge, under the belief that judges best position to decide the case…way better position than a politician in Richmond,” Mr. Haywood said.
The Senate’s bill calls for a report to study resentencing, while the House version allows those already convicted to petition for resentencing on the crimes addressed in the bill.
There are 224 mandatory minimum sentences attached to a wide range of offenses in Virginia, many of which were established during the tough-on-crime surge in the late 1990s.
John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, strongly condemned the Senate’s version of the bill and said the House version’s focus on drugs was their preference.
“Each and every one of those were policy decisions carefully considered by the General Assembly to address a specific criminal acts, such the rape of a child or assault on a law enforcement officer,” Mr. Jones said in a statement to The Times. “The removal of the mandatory sentences creates the possibility those responsible will be released too early back into society to commit more serious crimes.”
Mr. Haywood, however, says that now is the time to erase them all or not at all. He argued that undoing mandatory minimums — even for egregious crimes — doesn’t mean those who are convicted will receive leniency.
“No one is saying that people who commit terrible crimes don’t deserve to go to prison,” he said. “They’re setting this up like it’s an either-or … that’s completely disingenuous.”
The push to undo mandatory minimums comes as part of the Democrats’ larger criminal justice reform platform that includes marijuana legalization, automatic expungement for certain crimes and abolition of the death penalty.
If neither chamber approves the other’s bill, both versions will be sent to conference where lawmakers will have to negotiate a final product.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a special session that is expected to last until Feb. 27 to give lawmakers more time to get through their to-do list.
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