Scott Focuses on Mandatory Minimums in Violence Against Women Act

Rep. Bobby Scott, the senior Democrat on the Subcommittee on Crime for the House Judiciary Committee, mentioned the mandatory minimums in the the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act today on the floor of the House.

Since the Violence Against Women Act was passed 18 years ago, it has provided life-saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children across the nation. We need to work together to reauthorize VAWA.

Unfortunately, H.R. 4970 is seriously flawed, and I cannot vote to support it. Among its many flaws, it harms immigrant women and fails to protect the LGBT community. It also creates new mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums have been studied extensively and have been found to distort rational sentencing systems, to discriminate against minorities, and to violate common sense. Even if everyone involved in a case, from arresting officer, prosecutor, judge and victim, believes after hearing all the facts at trial that the mandatory minimum would be an unjust sentence for a particular defendant in a case, it still must be imposed.

Mandatory minimum sentences, based merely on the name of a crime, remove sentencing discretion from the sentencing commission and the judge. Regardless of the role of the offender in the particular crime, the offender’s record or lack thereof, or the facts and circumstances of the case, the judge has no discretion but to impose the mandatory minimum set by legislators long before the crime has been committed.

Mandatory minimums can be particularly harmful in domestic violence cases, where a victim of domestic violence may be less likely to report abuse knowing that if convicted, her abuser (who may also be the father of her children) is certain to go to prison for five or 10 years without parole. That is why many organizations dedicated to ending domestic violence that have worked hard for the reauthorization of VAWA are opposed to the mandatory minimum provisions in the bill. They did not ask for them and do not want them in the bill. In addition, the American Bar Association, the Judicial Conference of the United States, and many major organizations focusing on criminal justice oppose mandatory minimum sentences.

On top of all these problems in the reported bill, the Rules Committee adopted a manager’s amendment that, among other problems, deletes protections against discrimination in hiring by religious organizations using VAWA funds. Since 1965, we have had as federal policy a prohibition against allowing one group WHILE USING FEDERAL FUNDS to tell another group “we don’t hire your kind here.”

The 1965 Civil Rights Act allowed an exemption for churches using their own funds to be able to hire adherents to their faith in their religious programs. Understandably, we would not seek to require the Catholic Church to be open to hiring as a priest someone who was not Catholic or a synagogue to hire someone as a Rabbi who was not Jewish, and so on. In recent years, the Administration, including the current Administration, and the Congress, have sought to roll back those protections to allow church sponsored groups to discriminate in hiring on the premise that this promotes religious freedom.

This turns the concept of religious freedom on its head. Under the 1st Amendment’s requirement of separation of church and state, government funds cannot be used for religious purposes. Therefore, we should not allow a religiously sponsored organization to tell someone “we don’t hire your kind here” based on their religion.

​We must work together to reauthorize VAWA so that the good work that started 18 years ago when VAWA was first passed can continue. But H.R. 4970 in its current form is not the version of VAWA we need to pass.