RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A proposal to eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia won approval from a key legislative committee Monday.
The legislation cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee would end mandatory minimum jail and prison terms for more than 200 crimes, including drunken driving, gun violations, drug distribution, and possession or distribution of child pornography. Under the bill, a mandatory minimum sentence for capital murder — now punishable by life in prison or the death penalty — would remain in place.
Democratic Sen. John Edwards, the lead sponsor of the bill, said judges should be able to use state sentencing guidelines instead of being required to impose a mandatory minimum sentence for some offenses. “We have sentencing guidelines that are very good,” Edwards said.
Some Republicans members of the committee said they are opposed to eliminatory mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, including a third offense of driving while intoxicated within five years and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle said mandatory minimums can serve as a deterrent to some crimes. He cited Project Exile, a federal program that started in Richmond in the 1990s and moved the prosecution of certain illegal gun possession cases from state court to federal court, where they carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.
“This is really concerning,” McDougle said of the bill to eliminate most mandatory minimums.
But Democrats said judges always have the discretion to impose a severe sentence if they believe a particular crime warrants it.
“All this does is essentially say that we’re going to give the judges the discretion that the constitution places in them,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, who supports the bill.
Earlier this month, the Virginia State Crime Commission — an advisory group that studies and makes recommendations on public safety issues — endorsed legislation to eliminate mandatory minimums.
Several people spoke in support of the legislation, including advocates who said prosecutors often use mandatory minimums to scare criminal defendants into accepting plea deals because they fear a lengthy prison sentence if they do not.
“The current law bars — prohibits — the exercise of mercy,” said Andy Elders, a public defender and policy director at Justice Forward Virginia, an advocacy organization that promotes criminal justice reform.
John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said the group opposes eliminating the mandatory minimum sentence of six months for assaulting a law enforcement officer. Jones said removing the mandatory minimum would send the wrong message, “that it’s not as serious as it used to be to assault a law enforcement officer.”
The bill now heads to the Finance Committee.