RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — Virginia has decreased its overall jail population by 17 percent under new state guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a statement released by Governor Ralph Northam on Friday, collaborative efforts across the commonwealth to release non-dangerous low-level offenders from local and regional jails have worked.
“We are facing an unprecedented public health emergency, which has required us to work collaboratively to develop unique solutions,” said Governor Northam. “Criminal justice stakeholders across the Commonwealth are using the tools available to them to decrease our jail population and address this crisis responsibly, humanely, and deliberatively. This is exactly the type of cooperation we need, and I commend our public safety officials and urge them to continue these important efforts.”
Bacon on March 19, Gov. Northam issued guidance for local criminal justice officials, calling for them consider measures to reduce new jail intakes and reduce the current populations of jails, many of which, around the state, are overcrowded.
The Northam administration, in partnership with the Virginia Sheriffs Association (VSA), the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA), the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission (IDC), and the Virginia Association of Regional Jails (VARJ), recommended the following steps:
• Allowing sentence modifications that can reduce populations within the jails, as outlined in § 19.2-303 of the Code of Virginia.
• Diverting offenders from being admitted into jails prior to trial, including the use of summonses by law enforcement in lieu of arrest pursuant to § 19.2-74 of the Code of Virginia, and use of local pretrial programs as available and with consideration to local capacity.
• Considering ways to decrease the number of low-risk offenders being held without bail in jails.
• Utilizing alternative solutions to incarceration such as home electronic monitoring, pursuant to § 53.1-131.2 of the Code of Virginia.
On March 25, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran sent a letter to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, Donald Lemons, requesting assistance to encourage all magistrates and other responsible for determining bail to consider offenders' health and safety right now, as well as the safety of residents and employees in local and regional jails.
According to the governor's office, since late February, the number of new commitments to local and regional jails has decreased from approximately 10,000 during a two-week period to just over 4,000. On April 7, the jail population in the Commonwealth was 24,000, which is a 17 percent decrease from March 1. Virginia has also seen a 67 percent decline in the number of new commitments for misdemeanors across the Commonwealth.
On the local level, commonwealth's attorneys and courts have been responsible for releasing some non-violent offenders. Officials with Middle River Regional Jail, which has released a number of inmates from their overcrowded facility, explained the process to us. You can find that story here.
“Governor Northam called on local officials to work together to safely reduce our jail population, and this early and aggressive effort is clearly working,” said Secretary Moran. “Localities are taking these recommendations seriously, and I expect them to continue making decisions with the public safety of their communities in mind.”
Gov. Northam has also proposed a budget amendment – that requires approval from the General Assembly when they convene next week – to allow the Department of Corrections to release inmates who have less than a year left in their sentences and don't pose a threat to themselves or others.
That order would extend for the length of Virginia's state of emergency, which is set to run until June 10.