On February 27, 2021, the General Assembly passed a multitude of criminal justice reform measures, including the abolition of capital punishment, legalization of marijuana by 2024, and several others.
However, not included in the passed reform measures was a bill to scrap mandatory minimum sentences; a measure that Virginia legislators have been weighing for quite some time. This bill was a key goal of reformers, leaving many disappointed with the outcome.
Arguments For and Against Mandatory Minimums
Traditionally, while Virginia judges have to formally sentence individuals within the range dictated by law, judges generally have the authority to account for circumstances of the crime and adjust the sentence as they see fit. Mandatory minimums take this power away from the judge, requiring them to impose a certain amount of jail time for certain crimes.
Examples of mandatory minimums drafted in the bill include five to 40 days in jail for certain misdemeanor DUI charges, five years on many drug, gun, and child-pornography charges, and life in prison for rape or sodomy of a child under 13 years old.
Those that argue in favor of mandatory minimums assert that they are a needed precaution for serious crimes, ensuring that overly lenient judges do not prevent punishment.
Critics of mandatory minimums feel that these laws are frequently targeted at low-level offenders, contributing to the growth of the federal prison system. Oftentimes it is seen that the threat of long mandatory minimum sentences scares defendants into pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Mandatory Minimums in Drug Cases
Mandatory minimums are commonly used in criminal cases, including drug charges. While having small amounts of marijuana on your person can result in as low as a $25 fine, mandatory prison sentences can be applied. These mandatory punishments can be anywhere in the range of days to months to years depending on the severity of the crime, if or how many times the individual has been charged with similar crimes before, and ultimately, the judge’s discretion.
Senate and House Bills
The Senate version of the bill would have gotten rid of all mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia state law except the life term for killing a law enforcement officer. The bill was sponsored by Senator John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and would have given over 10,000 state prisoners new sentences if it had passed.
The House version of the bill called for scrapping mandatory minimum sentences on a shorter list of charges, including drug crimes and being a habitual offender. However, this version of the bill, backed by Delegate Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, left mandatory minimum sentences intact for most charges.
The bills passed in their respective houses, but ultimately the Senate and the House were unable to come to a place of agreement on the bill. Tinsae Gebriel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a lobbying organization, explained that it was a very complicated bill, and ultimately legislators tired out and the legislative session fell apart. However, Gebriel did note that he plans to bring the bill back again next year.