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VA Senate scraps effort to abolish mandatory minimum sentences

Person speaks into microphone
Virginia Sen. Joe Morrisey (D-Richmond), who introduced the Senate bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Virginia Senate has rejected a bill to eliminate every mandatory minimum criminal sentence in state code. Among the “no” votes were two Democratic Senators: Dick Saslaw and Lynwood Lewis.

A mandatory minimum sentence is the shortest period of incarceration that a judge can impose against a person convicted of a certain offense. Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond), who introduced the bill, said the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences was largely political.

“It began in the 80’s and the 90’s, where people realized you never lost an election because you were tough on crime,” Morrissey said. “We went from 4 to 5 to 10 to 20 to 30 to 60, and now we have 224 mandatory minimums.

Proponents of the measure say the sentences do not reduce crime as they are purported to do, but instead tie the hands of judges and juries and force judges to ignore the unique circumstances of individual cases.

Sen. Mark Obenshein (R-Harrisonburg) argued that while some of the mandatory minimums need to be repealed, “I cannot support a bill that repeals a mandatory minimum of one year for involuntary manslaughter.…or a minimum of forcible sodomy for five years,” he said. “I think that we need to look at these one by one.”

Last year, the Virginia State Crime Commission recommended the General Assembly eliminate every mandatory minimum sentence in the criminal code; they’re in place for crimes ranging from DUI’s to weapon offenses. It also voted to recommend those who are currently serving a mandatory minimum sentence be eligible to have their case heard again. 

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