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Crime Commission Recommends Abolishing Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Woman behind microphone
Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission which voted Tuesday to recommend the state abolish mandatory minimum sentencing. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

The Virginia State Crime Commission is recommending the General Assembly eliminate every mandatory minimum sentence in the criminal code, ranging from traffic violations to violent felony offenses. It also voted to recommend anyone currently serving a mandatory minimum be eligible for re-sentencing. 

Andy Elders, the deputy public defender in Fairfax County told the commission mandatory minimums do not reduce crime, as they are purported to do, but tie the hands of judges and juries. 

“We choose judges and juries carefully, and then mandatory minimum laws force them to ignore their judgment and humanity and that is not justice,” Elders said. 

The threat of mandatory minimum sentences also distorts the legal process, Elders said, because prosecutors can call for a mandatory sentence while offering a shorter sentence as part of a plea agreement.

“Nothing is more important than the ability of someone who's charged with a crime to say, ‘I didn't do this and I want my day in court,’” Elders said. 

A staff attorney for the commission noted that research on the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences at deterring crime and eliminating inequities is inconclusive. However, a 2020 report from the Virginia Department of Corrections stated Black people who are incarcerated on average have more mandatory minimum sentences than their white counterparts. According to the department, 31% of people in state custody are serving mandatory minimum sentences, either alone or in combination with other offenses. 

Members of the commission voted 9-2 to recommend the General Assembly do away with all mandatory minimum sentences, of which there are 224 in the Code of Virginia. Most are felonies. 

“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), who carried a bill to ban mandatory minimums during the special session in August. “Either do it or you don't do it. That's the only logical thing here.”

Del. Les Adams (R-Martinsville) said he was uncomfortable with the Crime Commission concluding the state should totally eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.  

“So much of the literature is inconclusive, it's really more a policy decision,” Adams said.

Adams voted against the motion along with Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone.