Members of the Virginia Crime Commission voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to endorse legislation stripping all mandatory minimum sentences from state code.
The sweeping proposal, which lawmakers plan to introduce when the General Assembly convenes later this month, would eliminate mandatory jail and prison terms attached to 224 offenses that range from drunken driving to child rape.
Lawmakers on the commission who backed the proposal — all Democrats — called it an important step to restore sentencing discretion to local judges and juries.
“I think mandatory minimums skew our system,” said Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Hampton, during the meeting. “We appoint judges to represent their communities and they are on the ground.”
The commission also voted to endorse legislation that would allow some prisoners serving felony mandatory minimum sentences to petition a judge to reconsider their sentence.
The Crime Commission’s staff said research on the effectiveness of mandatory minimums is inconclusive, but broadly proponents of the policy argue they deter crime, eliminate inequities in sentencing and guarantee a minimum punishment.
Opponents argue they don’t deter crime, have not actually eliminated sentencing disparities and “inflict a burden on a defendant’s right to trial.”
Most of the mandatory minimum sentences on the books in Virginia address driving while intoxicated, narcotics, child pornography and weapon violations, according to the research undertaken by the Crime Commission, though they said the offenses make up a relatively small proportion of convictions in any given year, accounting for just 3 percent of convictions in the past five years.
The commission’s research did find that Black inmates were more likely than White inmates to be serving time on the charges.
About 4,000 prison inmates are currently serving sentences that stemmed only from a charge with a mandatory minimum — most for drug distribution, driving with a revoked license, possessing a firearm after a felony conviction and simple assault on a law enforcement officer.
The commission quickly ruled out considering whether to maintain mandatory minimums on a charge-by-charge basis. “I don’t know how we’re going to decide which ones to keep and which ones not to keep,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. “You either do it or you don’t do it.”
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.