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Steve Descano column: The time is now to ban mandatory minimums
Criminal Justice Reform

Steve Descano column: The time is now to ban mandatory minimums

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When I glance out the window of my Fairfax County Courthouse office, I still can hear the calls of the racial justice protesters who gathered outside of the county jail next door shortly after I was sworn into office earlier this year. They — and their counterparts across Virginia — pushed local and state elected officials to do more to counteract mass incarceration, which has become the guiding principle of our state’s approach to criminal justice over the past several decades. During the special legislative session this past summer, the General Assembly made considerable progress on this front by enacting several significant reforms.

Now, in their coming session, I hope legislators will build on this momentum by banning mandatory minimums. These laws fail to make our communities safer, and fuel unnecessary growth in Virginia’s prison population.

Mandatory minimums are laws that require community members who are convicted of certain offenses to serve a minimum amount of time behind bars, regardless of the unique circumstances of their cases. They widely were enacted as part of the “tough on crime” wave of policies that swept the country in the early 1990s, and have caused jail and prison populations to boom while doing little to prevent crime. Now, despite study after study showing that a holistic approach to justice that does not exclusively rely on lengthy punitive interventions is more likely to reduce the risk of recidivism, Virginia’s state prison population has grown by a staggering 235% since 1983.

Unfortunately, the mass incarceration fueled in part by mandatory minimums disproportionately impacts Black residents of the commonwealth. Black Virginians account for 53% of our state prison population, despite only constituting 20% of state residents.

And for each community member stuck behind bars, the spiraling consequences quickly mount. Families must stretch to make ends meet down a paycheck; children are forced to grow up hardly knowing a parent; stable housing becomes elusive.

The bottom line is that mandatory minimums — and the mass incarceration that follows from them — do little to prevent crime while exacerbating the racial and socioeconomic inequities rife within Virginia’s criminal justice system.

Thankfully, a more holistic, just and effective approach to criminal justice is within reach. In Fairfax County, our office recently announced that we no longer will rely on mandatory minimums in plea deals. We also have required prosecutors to seek alternative sentences to incarceration wherever possible because such diversion has proven effective at reducing the likelihood of a subsequent offense. Additionally, we have committed to forgo unilaterally charging youth as adults. Children are better served by the interventions that only are available to them in the juvenile system than they are by the lengthy incarceration that has become the primary tool of the adult system. Finally, we also announced that we will pursue pretrial agreements with defendants in appropriate cases that allow for their records to be cleared and hard time to be avoided upon achieving rehabilitative benchmarks.

Taken together, these reforms promise to lessen our community’s reliance on mass incarceration, but we need help from Richmond to eradicate it. So long as mandatory minimums remain on the books, judges will be forced to impose the irrationally lengthy prison sentences that fuel mass incarceration, and prosecutors across the state who are unwilling to embrace reform will continue to reflexively seek such sentences. Meanwhile, those who do embrace reform will remain constrained because mandatory minimums are so pervasive in state law that local prosecutors cannot abandon them without also being forced to ignore critical facts surrounding certain types of cases.

Enough is enough. We can keep our communities safe and stem the tide of mass incarceration. Otherwise, too many families will remain broken and struggling to pay the bills while a loved one spends holiday season after holiday season behind bars. The General Assembly must heed the call of those Virginians who took to the streets earlier this year demanding justice. The time is now to ban mandatory minimums.

Steve Descano is the commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County and the city of Fairfax. He is a veteran and former federal prosecutor who took office this past January. Contact him at: stephen.descano@fairfaxcounty.gov

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