Bill to eliminate minimum sentences, except for most serious crimes, advances in Va.

The Virginia Senate’s Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all but the most serious crimes.

While the Virginia Crime Commission voted to approve stripping all mandatory minimum sentences from state law, the commonwealth’s Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-6 to advance a bill with one exception.

“Class 1 felonies are not in the bill — those Class 1 felonies deal with the death penalty,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, chairman of the committee and author of Senate Bill 1443.

In Virginia, a conviction for a Class 1 felony offers only two options: “The choices are death or life — they’re not in the bill, which means that will remain the same,” Edwards said.

“Every other category where the code provides for minimum mandatory is taken out,” said Edwards. “We have sentencing guidelines that are very good; the judges typically follow them. The minimum mandatory is very problematic.”

“The General Assembly should not be in the business of sending down minimum mandatory sentences in other cases” beside Class 1 felonies, he added.

Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle, who represents portions of Spotsylvania, Caroline, and Richmond County pointed out that the bill would eliminate mandatory minimums for a DUI for someone with elevated blood alcohol content, as well as for someone with three convictions for driving under the influence within five years.

Edwards said, “That’s what we have judges for.”

Democrat Scott Surovell, representing parts of Fairfax, Prince William, and Stafford Counties, said judges would maintain the ability to impose a sentence far above current mandatory minimums, “if a judge felt that the circumstances of the crime” merited it.

During the short public input availability of the virtual hearing, proponents said current mandatory sentences often reduce an innocent defendant’s willingness to stand trial, and often accept plea bargains rather than risk being convicted by a jury.

However, Sen. Thomas Norment, representing the Williamsburg region, said mandatory sentences were important for defendants in sex offense cases, saying that sex offenders have a higher incidence of reoffending, with more victims.

A minimum sentence accomplishes an important goal, Norment said: “It incapacitates them, and removes them from society for a period of time. Does that mean that rehabilitates them? No. But it minimizes the exposure.”

The bill now goes to the Finance Committee.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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