Virginia Democrats are proposing, for a third time, legislation to turn criminal punishment into a license to reoffend.

Sentencing criminals requires consideration of a few things: danger to society and our notions of justice, but also fairness across defendants. To try and balance these ideas, our criminal justice system has ultimately developed a sentencing formula (disappointing every student who went to law school to avoid math).

In Virginia, and in the federal system, criminal sentencing guidelines instruct prosecutors to assign numbers to a defendant’s criminal history, and exacerbating and mitigating facts of the crime. This formula yields a sentence range. In Virginia, the range is done in years, but in the federal system, it’s done in months. The “correct” sentence, then, is more science than art.

But in Virginia, some prison groups believe that, despite the guidelines, prison sentences greater than 15 years should be re-evaluated. House Bill 834, introduced by Del. Rae Cousins, D-Richmond, proposes that some prisoners serving these long sentences have their sentences reduced by a new judge.

This is a terrible idea.

Virginians don’t need the Department of Corrections statistics to know that any prisoner who has already served more than 15 years in prison is dangerous. Misdemeanor convictions don’t carry more than one year in prison, and most sentencing guidelines won’t go beyond five or so years unless the underlying offense involved violence.

Beyond general concern for law-abiding citizens, this legislation wholly ignores the victim’s point of view. In fact, it essentially rebuilds the entire criminal justice system. A victim or victim’s family member, who had spent the last 15-plus years believing that their abuser was safely incarcerated, would receive a phone call about a hearing. This victim would then have to relive their trauma, prior to physically returning to the jurisdiction where the crime occurred, and once more tell a courtroom full of strangers about the worst day of their life, more than a decade and a half ago.

Moreover, it completely undermines any faith or confidence a victim could feel with the closure of a sentencing. If this bill becomes law in 2024, isn’t everything on the table for renegotiation? Who is to say that the Democrats, if they hold the majority, might decide that 10 years, instead of 15 years, is too long of a sentence? With statutory precedent permitting cases to be reopened beyond the traditional parole process, how could a victim ever feel like the case was actually closed?

Inmates may apply for free defense counsel who can, without leave of the court, file for a new sentencing hearing. Not only would this almost certainly be before a new judge, it would also be a new prosecutor, who would need to learn the facts of the case, and be able to argue the other side.

While this legislation calls itself a ho-hum “second-look” process, it’s really a “criminal sentence cap” of 15 years.

Virginia used to be a state in which parole did not exist — everyone had to serve 85% of their sentence, no matter how severe the crime. This, plus the death penalty, also removed from our code by Democrats, did the important work of deterring crime in the commonwealth.

Judges will be hesitant to impose sentences of more than 15 years if it empowers another judge to simply go back to the drawing board. And a 15-year cap is not what Virginians have asked for or what we need. This push to renegotiate sentences is the sly first step in criminal “reformers’” plan to completely dismantle criminal punishments.