Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday he will sign no more mandatory minimum sentencing legislation for the remainder of his term as part of an effort to address racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
Northam, who has two and a half more years left in office, announced this while also vetoing two bills that would have imposed mandatory minimums. The moratorium is happening as state and federal legislators are more recently reexamining sentencing laws.
“I believe we have more than enough mandatory minimum sentences — more than 200 — in Virginia state code,” Northam wrote in a Washington Post column announcing his decision. “In recent weeks, I have visited with community leaders across the state seeking input on how I can best utilize 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.”
Northam vetoed H B 2042, which would have created a 60-day mandatory minimum term of confinement for anyone who commits an offense against a family or household member and has been convicted of another offense against a family or household member within the last 10 years. Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, sponsored the bill, which had widespread bipartisan support.
Northam also vetoed SB 1675, which created a mandatory minimum six-month term of imprisonment for anyone who kills or injures a law enforcement dog. The legislation also called for the sentence to be imposed separately and made to run consecutively with any other sentence. Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, a former police officer, sponsored the bill, which also sailed through both chambers.
“We rely on our judges and juries to make sound sentencing decisions based on the circumstances of each individual case,” Northam wrote in his veto message about the two bills. “In making these decisions, judges and juries consider a number of factors before determining a sentence, and their sentence decisions are the result of intense deliberation. Imposing mandatory minimum sentences eliminates this discretion and ties the hands of the individuals we have entrusted to make these important decisions.”
Murphy said in a statement that she appreciated Northam’s reluctance to sign a mandatory minimum bill, but she felt like 60 days was a “small compromise” in achieving her goal of helping victims of domestic abuse.
“My bill was intentionally drafted to protect victims of domestic abuse and save lives,” she said. “The stark truth is that very few cases of domestic violence are ever prosecuted.”
Reeves said the General Assembly viewed it “as imperative that we protect those who protect us, including animals serving in the line of duty.”
“Based on his actions, it is apparent to me that Gov. Northam cares more about playing politics than about the lives of unborn children, police K-9’s or working families seeking affordable healthcare options,” he said in a statement.
Conversations and action have taken place in the past few years about how to reduce the country’s bloated prison system and invest in rehabilitation. Mandatory minimum sentencing — especially for nonviolent offenders — has been one area of focus.
Last year, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, reforming tough-on-crime prison and sentencing laws. Measures included modifying sentencing laws, including shortening mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and providing judges more liberty to use so-called “safety valves” to go around mandatory minimums in some cases.
Jeffrey Bellin, a professor at the College William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law, said he is not familiar with other states making a decision like Northam’s.
“It’s a big deal not just for Virginia but as a signal of a national trend,” he said. “It’s a new reaction to a problem that policymakers are trying to address. It could be one that is controversial, because while many people are opposed to harsh punishments generally, they can sometimes think of exceptions for certain kinds of offenses.”
He said Northam’s decision could stop legislators from passing popular bills that are aimed at sending a message. He said legislation like this can emerge when there is one case where people say the punishment was too lenient, so lawmakers introduce a mandatory minimum bill.
Northam signed one of those this year. After a Richmond man received 36 years in prison for killing Virginia State Police Special Agent Michael Walter, Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, and Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, introduced legislation that would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for anyone convicted of capital murder of a police officer, leaving the offender with the punishment of either life in prison or the death penalty.
Bellin said mandatory minimums don’t just lead to unjust sentences, they can also distort proceedings in which they aren’t imposed. Innocent people take plea deals to avoid long prison sentences, he said.
Northam also pointed out that mandatory minimums disproportionately affect people of color.
“We need to focus on evidence-based approaches that ensure equitable treatment under the law,” Northam said. “And we must focus on ways to rehabilitate returning citizens, particularly nonviolent ones.”
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, a former commonwealth’s attorney, criticized Northam’s vetoes, saying he was trying to use them to repair his reputation with African Americans following the blackface scandal. Northam has been visiting black leaders around the commonwealth since the scandal and has emphasized equity issues on decisions related to legislation since then.
“When Republicans called on Ralph Northam to resign in February, it was because we felt he could no longer effectively govern,” Gilbert said in a statement. “[Wednesday’s] vetoes are proof of that. When given the choice of protecting women who have survived domestic abuse or attempting to repair his own racist legacy, he put himself first.”