Virginia’s prison population fell by thousands during the pandemic. Will it stay down?
The perimeter of Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, which is comprised of multiple layers of fencing, razor wire and guard towers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia’s prison population dropped by more than 5,000 people during the pandemic, and officials tasked with projecting future trends are wondering if it’s going to stay that way.
In a report released this month, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran’s office said said it’s too soon to know what impact legislation passed by the General Assembly since Democrats took control would have, but that a variety of bills could help keep numbers low.
Among the policy changes cited were bills that increased credits some prisoners could earn with good behavior, ended the state’s prohibition on marijuana and enacted far-reaching probation reform.
Because of uncertainty, the state committee tasked with the annual forecasts settled on a flat rate for the next six years, which would mean a prison population of about 31,000 people.
That’s far lower than the 38,000 prisoners the state expected to keep behind bars in 2019, when Republicans still controlled the General Assembly and criminal justice reform measures rarely passed.
The actual pre-pandemic population was 36,500, falling to 33,000 in 2020 and 31,170 last fiscal year, which ended in July. Officials attribute the drop primarily to reduced arrests by law enforcement during the pandemic and delayed trials and sentencing in the court system for those who were facing charges. The state also created an early release program for prisoners with less than 12 months left to serve.
In conversations with Department of Corrections leaders, Democrats in the legislature have made clear that lowering the prison population is a longterm goal. Harold Clarke, the state’s prison chief, has pushed back on the idea that the state can bank on the idea that numbers will stay low.
The committee of public safety officials and lawmakers who set forecasts agreed. “The collective impact of the legislation is difficult to quantify precisely, particularly if criminal justice decision makers begin to adjust their practices in response to the legislation,” they wrote.
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