Governor’s office: Virginia jail population drops 17 percent in response to coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WFXR) — Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday a 67 percent drop in new commitments for misdemeanors and a 17 percent drop in Virginia’s jail population following a collaborative effort to release low-level offenders from local and regional jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are facing an unprecedented public health emergency, which has required us to work collaboratively to develop unique solutions,” said Northam in a statement released Friday, April 17. “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.”

On March 19, the governor called for local criminal justice officials to consider proactive measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus while also protecting the safety of the public. Afterward, as part of a joint statement with local public safety agencies — including 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) — Northam recommended the following measures:

  • Allowing sentence modifications that can reduce populations within the jails.
  • Diverting offenders from being admitted into jails prior to trial, including the use of summonses by law enforcement instead of arrest and the use of local pretrial programs with consideration to availability and local capacity.
  • Considering ways to decrease the number of low-risk offenders being held without bail in jails.
  • Using solutions besides incarceration, such as home electronic monitoring.

The governor’s office says Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran sent a letter to Donald Lemons, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, on March 25 asking for help to encourage all magistrates and other judicial officers determining bail to consider the health and safety of those appearing before them, as well as the residents and employees in local and regional jails.

“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 Moran. “Localities are taking these recommendations seriously, and I expect them to continue making decisions with the public safety of their communities in mind.”

Since late February, the governor’s office says the number of new commitments to local and regional jails has dropped from approximately 10,000 people during a two-week period to just over 4,000 people. Between March 1 and April 7, Virginia’s jail population has dropped to approximately 24,000 people, which is a 17 percent decline, officials say. In addition, the number of new commitments for misdemeanors in the Commonwealth has reportedly decreased 67 percent.

According to Friday’s release, Northam also proposed a budget amendment that would allow the Director of the Department of Corrections to release individuals with less than a year left to serve in their sentences for the remainder of the state of emergency. The governor’s office says the General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene on Wednesday, April 22 to consider Northam’s amendments, including the budget.

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