GOV. Ralph Northam’s declaration that he would reject any future legislation that includes mandatory sentencing minimums represents flawed governance that takes a U-turn when a veer is what’s needed.
We understand that the governor is on a personal and political crusade to redeem himself for the lapses in judgment that resulted in the blackface/Klansman photo in his medical school yearbook, his admission that he applied shoe polish to his face for a talent show performance as Michael Jackson, and his nickname notation of “Coonman” in his VMI yearbook.
Since he is the state’s chief executive, this is one way Northam can use his position to both assuage his guilt and profess his good intentions.
And indeed, studies have shown that people of color have been disproportionately affected by the application of mandatory minimum sentences, which have contributed mightily to the explosion over the past 30 years of this nation’s world-leading rate of incarceration.
Even as President Trump has demanded that prosecutors seek the harshest possible sentences, he has also joined broad calls for criminal justice reform and granted clemency to a woman who had served 22 years of a mandatory life sentence for a nonviolent drug-related conviction.
But without question, the public needs to be confident that violent offenders will be put away for a sufficiently long period to pay for their crimes and not be released prematurely due to a nuanced sentence handed down from the bench.
Criminal justice reform must absolutely be a top priority both at the federal and state levels.
First, there is a moral responsibility to apply sentencing fairly across racial and socio-economic lines. Second, overextended incarceration of nonviolent offenders places an inordinate burden on the taxpayers while denying those offenders the opportunity to support their families and contribute to the community.
Unfortunately, even common-sense reforms before Congress that could help level the scales of justice, especially for nonviolent minority offenders, are mired amid partisan bickering.
Reform should be easier to accomplish in Virginia, which already boasts the lowest recidivism rate in the country and has weighed legislation that would tweak its truth-in-sentencing law that abolished parole in 1995. Even that law provides offenders a ray of hope, allowing a model prisoner to shave 15 percent off his or her sentence in good-behavior credits.
It’s also worth noting that Virginia reportedly has some 200 laws on the books that set mandatory minimums for various crimes. Perhaps a review of those is in order.
The May 1 veto by Northam that brought the most serious backlash involves House Bill 2042. It would set a 60-day minimum sentence for the crime of assault and battery against a family member—domestic violence—if the offender has a previous conviction for the offense in the past 10 years.
If there’s a problem with the bill, it’s whether the 60-day minimum is enough.
The bipartisan legislation was sponsored by Del. Kathleen Murphy, a McLean Democrat, and cosponsored by Del. C. Todd Gilbert, a Woodstock Republican. It passed the House on an 87–12 vote, and the Senate by 39–0—clearly veto-proof majorities.
During the ensuing veto session, Northam countered with an amendment to the bill that was rejected. Since the veto came subsequent to this year’s veto session, lawmakers have no opportunity to override it, which they no doubt would if they could.
In a strongly worded Washington Post op-ed decrying the veto, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox wrote that the 60-day mandatory minimum in the bill would have presented a strong deterrent to domestic abuse, adding, “Unfortunately, the governor and his party [emphasis added] are eager to take Virginia in the opposite direction.”
Given the measure’s Democratic sponsorship and strong bipartisan support, and the speaker’s ostensible desire to nurture such cooperation, we would challenge the wisdom of that blanket criticism.
However, like the mandatory minimums he condemns, the governor’s veto vow robs him of the case-by-case flexibility he should prefer.
We endorse reconsideration of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders while maintaining them for violent crimes. We also encourage Gov. Northam to pursue innovative ways to heal the wounds his past insensitivity has caused.