Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is governor of Virginia.
Growing up with a father who was a judge, I heard a lot about justice.
But for justice to be applied, punishments need to fit their crimes.
Over the past few decades, there has been a rise in legislation imposing mandatory minimum sentencing. These kinds of sentences are determined by elected officials who purport to be tough on crime, particularly drug offenses. Judges are not given the opportunity to arrive at these sentences by weighing the facts on a case-by-case basis.
This session, I signed one such bill into law, regarding the murder of police officers. It will be the last mandatory minimum bill that I sign for the remainder of my term as Virginia’s governor.
I believe we have more than enough mandatory minimum sentences — more than 200 — in Virginia state code. In recent weeks, I have visited with community leaders across the state seeking input on how I can best use the power of the governor’s office to make our commonwealth fairer and more equitable for communities of color. My commitment today will not solve all of the issues with our criminal justice system, but I believe it is a step in the right direction.
I’m starting with vetoes of two mandatory minimum sentencing bills this week.
The bills demonstrate how we have become too quick to impose mandatory minimum sentencing. One, House Bill 2042, would impose a 60-day mandatory minimum for assault and battery against a family or household member for someone with a prior assault and battery conviction in recent years. The other, Senate Bill 1675, establishes a six-month mandatory minimum for killing or injuring a law enforcement animal, which is already a felony under Virginia code.
While violence is unacceptable, these are crimes that can be addressed by a judge with full knowledge of the facts and circumstances of each particular case.
Piling on mandatory minimum sentences has contributed to our growing prison population over the past few decades, to the point that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in the popularity of mandatory minimums pegged to drug offenses, no matter the circumstances. Mandatory minimums for lower-level drug offenses, along with three-strikes laws, helped accelerate the rise in prison populations in the United States. At the end of 2016, the United States had 655 people in prison for every 100,000 adults, according to World Prison Population List, compared to a world prison population rate of 145 per 100,000 adults. That is the highest incarceration rate out of 222 countries ranked by the World Prison Brief.
Data do not indicate that mandatory minimum sentences keep our communities safer. Instead, mandatory minimums are disproportionately harming people and communities of color.
According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an agency of the federal judicial branch, black offenders are more likely to be convicted of an offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence than individuals of other races. The commission’s findings echo other literature on the racial disparities in sentencing.
There is evidence that federal prison population numbers are starting to decline. This may be partly because of changes to federal mandatory minimum sentences, such as the Fair Sentencing Act approved by Congress in 2010.
That’s good news, and we should keep that trend going.
Not only are mandatory minimum laws overly punitive and discriminatory, but they’re also expensive. Prison is not free. Governments, and ultimately taxpayers, bear the costs.
There are better ways to ensure that the punishment fits the crime, and many of these ways are already in our code, such as sentencing guidelines.
Mandatory minimums are focused on punishment, not rehabilitation. I have declared May to be Second Chance Month in Virginia, to increase the focus on ways we can make our criminal justice system fairer and more equitable. We must continue to prepare returning citizens to be successful members of the community. And we must work harder to address the mental health and substance-use disorders that often lead people into our criminal justice system.
We need to focus on evidence-based approaches that ensure equitable treatment under the law. And we must focus on ways to rehabilitate returning citizens, particularly nonviolent ones. I want to give our judges, appointed by the Virginia General Assembly, the appropriate discretion over sentencing decisions. We must remember that punishment and justice are not always the same thing. We are better as a society when we give our judicial system the ability to discern the difference.