NORFOLK, Va. – According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Black male offenders on average received sentences 20.4 percent longer than white males who commit the same crimes.
“[Mandatory minimums] treated people as widgets instead of individuals,” said Amy Fettig with The Sentencing Project. “As a result, people are serving very, very harsh sentences."
“Over 200,000 people are serving life sentences [in the U.S.],” Fettig continued. “That’s because of these mandatory minimums sentences that got harsher and harsher and harsher."
Mandatory minimums were adopted decades ago as a part of the “tough on crime” movement. They are predetermined prison sentences for certain crimes in Virginia – outlined by the General Assembly – including crimes like DUIs, drug distribution and using a firearm in the commission of a felony. Sentences range from two days to life in prison for hundreds of crimes.
Judges are forced to impose the sentences – and defendants must serve every minute of that time – even if the judge believes the punishment does not fit the crime.
Supporters say mandatory minimums ensure criminals go to prison, but opponents say it leads to unjust mass incarceration.
“All it does is prevent the sensible application of mercy, when mercy is appropriate,” said Norfolk Commonwealth Attorney Ramin Fatehi. “They take away the ability of a judge, and to an extent a prosecutor, to make a decision that is individualized to the facts of the case.”
There are 224 crimes attached to mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia, more than most states. Fatehi said that paves the way for unfair prison sentences.
“It is incredibly expensive to imprison somebody. It is taxpayer money that can go into rebuilding crumbling schools, dealing with infrastructure, dealing with transit,” said Fatehi. “It’s money that we should only spend when the punishment fits the crime.”
According to an analysis of mandatory minimums by the Virginia State Crime Commission in 2020, mandatory minimums may not have eliminated sentencing disparities. Research highlighted in the report said prosecutors in one study were “twice as likely to bring a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence against a Black defendant.” The report also said “Black males were found to receive sentences that were 50% longer than White males.”
Fatehi said eliminating mandatory minimums will help address bias in the courtroom.
“There is a multi-step process to try and make the system more equitable and to ensure that the sentence that a person serves is based on the facts of their case, and not based on their race,” said Fatehi. “This is not an argument that people should serve less time than they deserve. Everybody should serve every day that they deserve to serve, they simply shouldn’t serve a day more.”
A bill introduced during the General Assembly session this year to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia failed. Similarly, the “Second Look” bill, which would have allowed prosecutors and judges to addressexcessive and bias sentences of the past, also failed.