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Virginia inmate numbers expected to remain low

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The number of adult offenders incarcerated in Virginia is set to drop this year, after plunging during the start of the pandemic as prison officials released inmates to try to contain the virus and courts closed doors for a time.

The latest population forecast for adults in Virginia prisons or held in jail after convictions for felonies but not yet transferred to a prison says inmate numbers will drop 12% this fiscal year, to 26,363.

Inmate numbers would likely remain below 27,000 for the next five years, the state forecast says.

That comes after a 19% drop from 2019, before the pandemic hit.

A big reason for this year’s projected drop is the release of 2,676 inmates under the new system to earn credit for early release. They account for just under three-quarters of the decline.

“I think raising the felony threshold for larceny may be a factor” explaining why prison population will remain low, said state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The General Assembly increased that trigger for a stiffer felony sentence for theft from $500 to $1,000 in 2020. Before the change, Virginia had one of the lowest thresholds for punishing larceny as a felony.

Changes to sentencing guidelines for technical violations of probation may also be a factor, Edwards said.

“I don’t there’s any decrease in crime,” said state Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, who like Edwards is on the Judiciary Committee and has an active legal practice.

“The courts are terribly backed up,” he said. “There’s been a real compression of schedules, even for quite serious crimes. … I think it’s going to take some time to deal with that.”

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The emergency order that suspected all nonessential and nonemergency court proceedings from March to May 2020 meant a big drop in sentencing hearings which has had a knock-on effect, as courts are still trying to catch up.

“I don’t think they can actually predict prison populations based on declining arrests due to secondary laws or reduced numbers of LEOs -- yes, we still can’t recruit or retain,” said Dana Schrad, executive director of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, referring to an acronym for law enforcement officers.

Meanwhile, it is not clear if the recent repeal of the law that a third or subsequent conviction for petty larceny should be treated as a felony will have much impact.

Inmate numbers had been declining slightly before the pandemic. The number declined by about 5% between its recent 2014 peak and the start of the pandemic-sparked decline.

Between February and June 2020, the number of inmates fell by 2,750  because of policies put in place to reduce the spread of the virus.

After that, the General Assembly granted the director of the Department of Corrections authority to release inmates who were within one year of their expected release. The department released an additional 2,185 by the time this authority expired on June 30 2021.

Jail inmate numbers – basically people awaiting trial and those serving time after convictions on misdemeanor charges - dropped in fiscal year 2020 by 28% as the pandemic first hit.

But they bounced back up in 2021 by 15% and declined again in fiscal year 2022 by 5% to 15,490.

The 2021 swing came as judges sentenced more misdemeanor offenders to do time, and held more people who were awaiting trial in jail instead of letting them post bond.

The forecast reflects the 6% increase in crimes against the person – everything from homicide to assault – seen so far this year, as well as 22% increase in thefts and other property crimes.

On the other hand, arrests for drugs, other than marijuana, fell 16%. Possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized in 2020.

The numbers of juveniles in the state’s correctional centers, and held in local or regional detention centers, is expected to rise. After a sharp drop in juvenile cases in fiscal year 2021, cases increased by nearly 32% in fiscal 2022.

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