Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday he will no longer sign any legislation that imposes new mandatory minimum sentence requirements, a pledge he said was part of his efforts to make Virginia more equitable for communities of color.
Northam said in a news release Wednesday and in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that judges need more discretion to decide punishments on a case-by-case basis.
"I believe we have more than enough mandatory minimum sentences — more than 200 — in Virginia state code," Northam said.
Virginia has mandatory minimum requirements for a broad range of crimes, ranging from the illegal sale of cigarettes to involuntary manslaughter. The mandatory sentences range from a few days to decades in prison.
The Democratic governor's announcement comes amid his ongoing effort to repair relationships with the black community and members of his own political party after a blackface scandal almost led to his resignation earlier this year. In early February, Northam first admitted then denied that he'd appeared in a racist photo that surfaced in his medical school yearbook. He did say he wore blackface in the 1980s while dressed as Michael Jackson at a dance competition.
Northam rejected widespread calls for him to resign, including from fellow Democrats and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. But many Democrats have signaled in recent weeks a willingness to work with the governor, who has said he plans to devote his remaining three years in office trying to heal Virginia's longstanding racial scars.
Phil Wilayto, a community organizer with the group Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, said mandatory minimum sentences have had a disproportionate effect on black Virginians and it's encouraging that Northam is taking action. Wilayto said he hopes it's part of a broader look at criminal justice reform.
"Let's hope that he continues that track," Wilayto said.
Northam also announced he was vetoing two recently passed pieces of legislation that imposed new mandatory minimums. One of those bills would require 60 days in jail for certain repeat domestic abusers.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic Del. Kathleen Murphy, said she was "really disappointed" by Northam's veto.
"The purpose of this bill is to try and save lives," she said.
Republican House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert called Northam's veto of the bill "unconscionable" and done for political expediency.
"When given the choice of protecting women who have survived domestic abuse or attempting to repair his own racist legacy, he put himself first,"Gilbert said.