Does Virginia Need Mandatory Minimums? Residents, Lawmakers Say No

By Dogwood Staff

December 10, 2020

Officials, residents and activists all present a case for eliminating the concept during a town hall meeting.

RICHMOND – Last year, Governor Ralph Northam published an op-ed in the Washington Post, explaining that he would veto any new legislation on mandatory minimums that reached his desk. Now, State Senator John Edwards, an attorney and former judge advocate, wants the entire concept repealed in Virginia.

The FAMM Foundation, a criminal justice advocacy group, hosted a town hall on Dec. 8. Edwards, along with other panelists, explained his perspective. For him, the concept restricts judicial discretion, meaning judges can’t consider extenuating circumstances. 

“It allows a legislature to do the sentencing, when they don’t know what’s going on,” Edwards said. 

What Are Mandatory Minimums?

Legislatures establish mandatory minimum sentences so that the punishment for a certain crime is automatic. Judges can increase these sentences, but can’t use their discretion to reduce them.

When these laws were originally passed, they were intended to deter criminals by ensuring harsh sentences. But Kevin Ring, president of the FAMM foundation, doesn’t see a reason to keep them. 

“There’s no evidence that mandatory minimums work,” he said.

In fact, one study by the National Research Council found that mandatory minimum laws actually undermined the justice system. Defendants in some cases received disproportionate sentences. In others, prosecutors downgraded charges in order to avoid invoking mandatory minimums, while judges refused to convict some defendants.

The Power of Personal Testimony

“It started with the Reagan era, so we have people incarcerated 10, 20, 30 years now,” said Karen Morrison, an instructor with Norfolk Public Schools. 

During the town hall, Morrison spoke about her own experience with mandatory minimums. When a judge sentenced her close friend to life for a first-time drug offense, she fought to gain clemency for him. President Barack Obama granted it in 2016.

At the town hall, Morrison said her advocacy was ongoing. 

“We’re advocating an end to mandatory minimums on the basis that they lead to excessive sentencing,” Morrison added. 

Lavern Rushin recalled the moment a judge sentenced her son Matthew to 50 years in prison. She said she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. 

“I remember just sitting behind him, when the judge said fifty years my heart dropped. I thought I’d lost everything that moment, that instant,” Lavern said. 

Matthew Rushin pleaded guilty to two counts of malicious wounding, as well as one count of hit and run. But his 50-year sentence (of which he would have served 10 years) drew the attention of criminal justice advocates.

In 2020, after receiving a letter from Lavern Rushin, Governor Northam agreed to reduce Matthew’s sentence – with conditions including required mental health counselling and substance abuse testing. Rushin is now set to be released in the Spring of 2021.

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Unlikely Allies

This fight made for some unexpected allies on Tuesday night. Andy Elders, a public defender in Fairfax County, Stephanie Morales, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Portsmouth, and Jacob Fish, deputy state director with Americans for Prosperity, all weighed in on the subject.

Fish described AFP as a “non-partisan grassroots advocacy organization”. The organization, largely funded by Charles Koch was instrumental in turning the conservative Tea Party movement into a political force. The AFP also ran ads attacking then-candidate Ralph Northam in 2017.

Nevertheless, AFP has found common ground with progressive reform advocates like Morales and Elders in their shared opposition to mandatory minimums.

“They increase the cost and time people spend in the criminal justice system,” said Fish, “The best thing [the government] can do is to get out of the way.”

Likewise, in the courtroom Morales and Elders represent opposing sides, but they’ve found common ground in their desire to remove the coercive threat of mandatory minimums. “The structure is designed to intimidate people into pleading guilty,” said Elders during the town hall.

“This is exactly how it was designed to operate, and now we have to have a conversation on how to transform it,” said Morales.
For now, FAMM is asking supporters to contact their legislators to express support for repealing mandatory minimums. Senator Edwards has filed a bill to repeal mandatory minimums – but it’s currently awaiting a subcommittee referral, and is unlikely to resurface without significant public support.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at [email protected].

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