RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A bill to eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia advanced in the General Assembly on Monday as part of a broader effort to address racial inequity in the criminal justice system.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation on a 9-6 vote, sending the bill to Senate Finance before it faces the full chamber.
The majority vote comes after the same panel killed a similar proposal in August of 2020. The idea picked up momentum again earlier this month when the Virginia Crime Commission endorsed eliminating all mandatory minimum sentences.
Regardless, the bill that’s moving forward in the 2021 session is more restrained than earlier efforts.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair John Edwards (D-Roanoke), who’s sponsoring the bill, said it excludes Class One felonies. The change means that the required life-or-death sentence for capital murder of a police officer will remain on the books even if the bill passes.
Edwards said the change came in response to concerns from lawmakers and law enforcement.
Virginia State Police Association Executive Director Wayne Huggins praised Edwards for being receptive but criticized continued efforts to remove the minimum penalty for assaulting a police officer.
“With all the anti-police rhetoric going on, it sends a message that we don’t take that quite as serious as we used to and we think that is totally the wrong message to be sending to society as a whole and to the law enforcement community in particular,” Huggins said.
Even watered down, the legislation would remove more than 200 mandatory minimums embedded in state law, which largely address drunk driving, drug offenses and weapons violations.
According to Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), the bill could also eliminate a slew of minimum penalties for sex crimes, including certain rapes, object sexual penetration and child pornography.
“It is worse than I thought,” McDougle said in a phone interview after the committee vote.
Debbie Smith, rape survivor and founder of the advocacy group H.E.A.R.T, said the push to eliminate mandatory minimums considers the needs of criminals over victims.
“As a victim of crime, I feel like we have gone so far on the other side of what justice looks like,” Smith said. “Once again, we don’t matter. We have to prove our worth.”
While opponents of the policy argue that mandatory minimums ensure equal enforcement of the law, supporters claim that’s not the case.
In Monday’s committee meeting, advocates generally argued that minimum sentencing has disproportionately impacted communities of color, contributed to unnecessarily high incarceration costs and failed to prevent crime.
In addition, Edwards said mandatory minimums favor the prosecutor and pressure innocent people to take a plea deal, rather than exercising their right to a trial.
Asked if he would consider carving out additional exceptions for sex crimes or assaults on law enforcement, Edwards balked.
“Let’s leave it to judges with sentencing guidelines rather than picking and choosing what should be mandatory or not. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the General Assembly to decide what a mandatory minimum sentence should be,” Edwards said.
Edwards said the bill that advanced on Monday wouldn’t allow those already serving a mandatory minimum to petition their sentence. Instead, it directs the state to study the issue so that the policy can be revisited in the future.