Scott Surovell, a Democrat, represents parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties in the Virginia state Senate.
In 1987, I turned 16, the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 2000 for the first time , I was watching the No. 1 song in America, the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” on MTV, Ronald Reagan demanded that the Soviet Union “tear down this wall,” and mobile phones were the size of shoe boxes.
That same year, Edward Simms, a suicidal, desperate and homeless juvenile with no responsible family members, was convicted by a jury of three separate charges that occurred over a two-week period in Hampton, Va., when he was 16 years old. No one was injured in any of the incidents, and he was not in jail between each offense.
Thanks to Virginia’s 1982 three-strikes law, the court was forced to sentence Simms to life in prison plus 63 years. Thanks to Virginia’s 1995 abolition of parole, he has been forced to stay there. Virginia’s system legally abandoned him.
Although everyone gave up on him, Simms did not give up on himself. He served as a model inmate. He was not the subject of a disciplinary infraction in more than 20 years. He worked to obtain his GED in 1989, completed college-level coursework, tutored other inmates in hopes he would one day be released and held numerous positions of responsibility and jobs in prison. He was turned down by one governor for clemency.
He repeatedly accepted responsibility for his conduct and demonstrated remorse. He became engaged to a 20-year retired police officer and detective who has spent her career safeguarding Virginia’s streets and has seen the good work that Simms has done from behind prison walls. He kept up hope.
In 2018, I introduced legislation to modify Virginia’s three-strikes rule to require that an individual be incarcerated between each conviction so that it would not be applied to incidents resulting from a spree. I withdrew my legislation so the Virginia Parole Board could consider administrative options. It subsequently changed the board’s official interpretation of Virginia law to require an individual to be incarcerated between each conviction before the “three strikes” restriction on parole would apply.
As a result, Simms became eligible for parole. On July 16, at age 49, he was granted parole by the Virginia Parole Board and released from prison. He served 32 years in Virginia prisons for decisions he made when he was a child and that resulted in no injuries.
Simms’s situation underscores the problems with mandatory minimum sentences.
The world is a complicated place, and our system must have discretion built into our criminal-justice procedures so that decision-makers can fashion sentences to fit the crime and consider the circumstances, including victim impact, and can attempt rehabilitation instead of being robotically forced to give life sentences to juveniles. Cleaning up these situations should not be left to the Virginia Parole Board or pro bono counsel.
The General Assembly jealously guards its prerogative to elect judges and reelect judges to the bench, but given the number of mandatory minimum sentences we enact, you would think we do not trust the people we elect or have learned any lessons.
This year, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) vetoed legislation requiring a 60-day mandatory minimum sentence for second offense domestic violence. This legislation would require a judge to put a child in jail for 60 days for hitting his or her sibling on two occasions. The legislation was reintroduced by the majority leader of the House of Delegates in our special session on firearm violence prevention and has been referred to the Virginia State Crime Commission — an entity that has already positively vetted far too many mandatory minimum sentence proposals over the past two decades.
Defenders of these laws claim that Virginia’s dozens of mandatory minimum sentences somehow deter crime, as if the poor, children abandoned by their families, those suffering from mental illness or others with disabilities such as traumatic brain injury consider Virginia’s portfolio of mandatory minimum sentences before making their life-changing decisions. The same people claim no reasonable prosecutor would ever force a judge to put a child in jail for life for three offenses where no one was injured and that mandatory minimum offenses are needed to ensure proper sentencing outcomes.
Edward Simms is living proof that they are wrong.