The VA Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance applauds Governor Ralph Northam’s decision to veto two bills that passed this year’s General Assembly session that supported mandatory minimum sentencing for particular crimes. One of those bills, House Bill 2042, would have created a 60 day mandatory minimum sentence for a second conviction of assault and battery of a family or household member within a 10 year period. While we applaud legislators’ instincts to take crimes of domestic violence seriously and to seek victim safety, we do not believe that mandatory minimums are a real solution that protects victims of domestic violence. In fact, mandatory minimums are a costly and simplistic tool that serve to remove judicial discretion and disproportionately impact historically marginalized communities while providing little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders of domestic violence.
“…mandatory minimums are a costly and simplistic tool that serve to remove judicial discretion and disproportionately impact historically marginalized communities while providing little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders of domestic violence.”
Loss of judicial discretion in sentencing, that takes all of the facts presented in a particular case into account, is one of the strongest arguments against the use of mandatory minimums. The criminal charge of assault and battery against a family or household member does not necessarily take into account a pattern of ongoing behavior that includes a broad range of crimes and offenses designed to exert power and control over an individual. Many victims do fight back in self-defense. Creating a mandatory minimum sentence can land victims of domestic violence in jail and serve to reinforce the control of the abuser. Many judges understand this and often craft solutions to hold a victim accountable for committing a crime of assault and battery yet allow for options that recognize the broader circumstances, such as referring a victim, who has committed violence in an act of self-defense, to a domestic violence program.
We believe that working to address and change practices and procedures at the community level – such as effective enforcement of protective orders, appropriate law enforcement response to crimes of domestic violence, appropriate charging and prosecution of crimes, and a coordinated community response to this violence – is the work that recognizes the complexities of domestic violence, understands the impacts of trauma on families, and addresses real community solutions to this devastating issue.
The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance opposes mandatory minimum sentences as a strategy to address domestic violence in the Commonwealth. Putting our resources towards real solutions like strengthening coordination of systems, creating trauma-informed, healing-centered communities, providing services to both victims and offenders that help to strengthen families, and removing guns from convicted abusers and respondents in protective order cases are all strategies that bring about real safety for victims.