Inmate population decreases during pandemic

By Brandon Martin

Following guidelines to decrease the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), jails across the state are reporting decreases in jail populations and new misdemeanor admissions.

Gov. Ralph Northam asked local criminal justice officials to consider protective measures such as jail sentence modification, preventing pretrial admittance, decreasing low-risk offenders held without bail, and increasing electronic monitoring programs.

Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper said that the city’s enhanced electronic monitoring program “has freed up some space,” but that he hasn’t seen the levels that the city would like.

Draper said that the electronic monitoring is helping keep people out of jail but still confined. That doesn’t mean that it will solve the area’s jail overcrowding problem, he added.

“You can’t let out but so many people and we don’t want to let out anybody that will go out and continue to break the law,” he said.

He said the city’s fee for allowing electronic monitoring will be waived this time due to COVID-19 but that some may have to pay at a later date.

The fee for electronic monitoring is typically $10 a day, Draper said, adding that he was one of the first to start using the program in the 1990s.

But, he noted, it’s a little different this time around.

“It’s not a cut and dry system,” he said. “I think it’s working really well for us here in the city.”

Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said the county also is seeing an increase in use of electronic monitoring, but that they “aren’t monumental numbers or anything like that. We try to walk that line of enforcing laws and maintaining social distancing guidelines. We are doing what we can to try to reduce the jail population, but our standard is that the public has to be safe,” he added.

So far, people are cooperating, according to Perry.

“People are taking these warnings a little more serious,” he said. “Jail is not somewhere anyone wants to be during this pandemic.”

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.

“We are facing an unprecedented public health emergency, which has required us to work collaboratively to develop unique solutions,” Northam said. “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.”

Inmate population in local jail facilities like the Henry County Jail (pictured) has declined, while the use of home-monitoring systems has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to authorities.

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