While the General Assembly passed some landmark progressive legislation in the 2021 session, including a death penalty repeal, one expected criminal justice reform died at the last minute. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) renewed calls for ending mandatory minimum sentences, except for murder of law enforcement officers, at a Monday press conference.
“We stand now at a historic moment in Virginia where people are crying out for and demanding justice and fairness after 400 years of a criminal justice system that has deepened the rules of racial oppression,” said Fairfax, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Fairfax noted Democratic successes with the death penalty repeal and marijuana legalization. He said, “We now, in this moment in the second year of the next 400 years, can make a future that is much different, that is focused on justice and fairness.”
Morrissey said that mandatory minimums force judges and juries to levy harsh sentences requiring decades-long incarcerations that don’t always fit the crime. He listed examples of several people who declined to accept plea deals and were stuck with heavy sentences as a result. Morrissey called for an expected upcoming special session to consider the issue again.
“Mandatory minimum sentences are destroying generations of Virginians,” Morrissey said.
He blamed the failure to pass a repeal on Delegate Mike Mullin (D-Newport News.)
“The failure lies solely at the feet of [Mullin,]” Morrissey said.
Mullin introduced a mandatory minimums repeal bill that passed in the House of Delegates. His bill focused just on repealing mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, including some drug crimes. The Senate passed its own bill that removed all mandatory minimum sentences; Morrissey co-sponsored the bill. When the two chambers insisted on passing their own versions of the legislation, the bills went into a conference committee of six legislators including Morrissey and Mullin. Both bills died without a completed compromise.
In March, Morrissey said that he had offered a compromise to Mullin that would expand the House bill to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for firearms crimes, according to The Daily Progress. Mullin said that there wasn’t support within the House for a broader mandatory minimums repeal, and blamed the Senate for not compromising further.
“This is an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good,” Mullin said, according to The Daily Progress.
“We capitulated to Mullin, even though it didn’t go nearly far enough,” Morrissey told The Virginia Star on Monday. “He is, as I’ve said and will say again, nothing more than a career prosecutor masquerading as a delegate.”
Morrissey described a failed agreement linking marijuana legalization with mandatory minimums repeal that occurred while the bill was in conference.
“They said, ‘Send the marijuana bill over, we’ll send you your mandatory minimums back.’ So, we voted on it, we said, ‘We’ll do it,’ and then Mike Mullin walked it back,” Morrissey said. “The marijuana bill is, come on! It’s a $25 fine for possession of marijuana, but all these progressive Democrats are coming out and saying, ‘It’s the new flavor of the month. It’s the most important thing that we ever get done.'”
Morrissey said, “I was the patron of legalizing marijuana. So, I can say that, with certainty, that bill pales in comparison to a bill to eliminate mandatory minimums.”
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