RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In a special session dedicated to COVID-19 and criminal justice reform, senators shot down a bill that would’ve done away with mandatory minimum punishments in Virginia.
Eight members of the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee voted to kill the proposal and refer it to the Virginia Crime Commission for further study. Three senators voted to keep it alive, including the Committee’s Chairman Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke), who introduced the bill.
“For the General Assembly to straitjacket judges and juries from making these individual determinations is problematic from a constitutional stand point,” Edwards said.
Some Democrats expressed support for the idea but said it’s too complex for the special session, adding that it could be revisited in 2021.
“I don’t typically like mandatory minimums, particularly for lesser crimes, but there are some for serious crimes we may want to keep on the books,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat from Fairfax.
“If it’s a crime against a child or certain types of physical assaults, murder or rape, there should be some penalties where you should not be able to get less of a sentence,” said Republican Caucus Chairman Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover).
Another bill dealing with sentencing reform advanced out of the Committee on Thursday.
Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) said defendants often accept plea deals, instead of going to trial, for fear that a runaway jury will hand down a lengthy sentence that doesn’t match the crime. Morrissey said his bill would change that.
“Defendants can have their day in court in front of a jury and if found guilty be sentenced by a judge. It’s transformational,” Morrissey said.
Republicans resisted changing the process, arguing that judges can modify excessive sentencing decisions by a jury.
“It’s illogical. It’s incomprehensible. Let the jury system work. We trust them to determine whether you’re guilty or not guilty so trust them to set the penalty,” Sen. McDougle said.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) pointed out that judges are at times reluctant to change the will of a jury.
“It is an outdated, archaic, old fashioned process,” said Sen. Surovell. “It chills people’s constitutional rights.”
Morrissey said 44 states already use this system, as do federal courts.
The bill was re-referred to the Senate Finance Committee, where it needs a majority vote before it’s debated by the full chamber.
8News reporter Jackie DeFusco is covering the special session and providing updates on Twitter.