As the pandemic took hold in mid-March, Charlottesville and Albemarle’s criminal justice decision-makers started letting people out of jail. Two months in, it looks like the emergency measures have paid off: The Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail has not reported a single coronavirus case among inmates, and those transferred to house arrest have not posed any notable threat to public safety.
When the pandemic began, jails and prisons were quickly identified as potential coronavirus hotbeds, given the crowded living conditions and low quality of medical care. The area’s commonwealth’s attorneys, judges, and jail administration responded accordingly: They ended pretrial detentions, meaning people awaiting trial no longer had to sit in jail simply because they could not afford bail. And they transferred non-violent prisoners with short remaining sentences to home electronic incarceration (house arrest). That’s resulted in the lowest number of inmates inside the ACRJ in decades.
Local advocates have long hoped to see these decarceration policies put into practice. The pandemic offered a chance to speed that process along. Speaking to C-VILLE in March, Albemarle County’s reform-minded Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley framed the pandemic as a sort of experiment: “We are going to be accumulating information about the effects of liberalized policies with respect to sentences and bail decisions,” Hingeley said. “We’re going to see how instituting these different practices works out…My hope is that it’s going to work out well.”
Two months later, early returns show that the liberalized sentencing policies have had just the effect that Hingeley and other advocates envisioned.
The ACRJ has transferred around 15 percent of its pre-COVID population to house arrest, and the jail has recorded zero cases of COVID among inmates. By contrast, the state prison system has transferred just 217 of its 30,000 prisoners (less than 1 percent) out of the prisons, and the system has seen more than 1,100 cases of the virus in facilities around the state.
Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, allowing ACRJ prisoners to serve their time on house arrest has not endangered the public. In the last 70 or so days, more than 90 people have been released on house arrest, and “no new criminal offenses were committed,” says jail superintendent Martin Kumer. Eight people, out of 90, have been transferred back into the jail, all for technical violations such as drug use or unauthorized travel.
Last week, the Tom Tom Foundation convened a panel of local criminal justice leaders to discuss reforming the justice system during and after the pandemic. For some, the conclusions from the past two months support arguments they’ve been making for years.
“The data has already been there,” pointed out panelist Cherry Henley, who runs Lending Hands, an ex-offender aid service. “Most people like myself already recognize that if you can release people into the community, they are not that high risk. At the jail, at the work release department, most of these people go out anyway, every day.”
Even so, the pandemic has given these reformers new momentum, and keeping that going is important to them. “People forget stuff really quick,” said Harold Folley, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center. Folley thinks that moving forward, advocates for decarceration must “constantly remind [people] that releasing folks is safe. Those folks that were released didn’t go and do something criminal here in Charlottesville.”
It’s also important to remember that the house arrest system is far from perfect. “We’ve been dealing with a lot of inmates being released, and they’re on HEI, and they don’t have identification,” says Whitmore Merrick, who works for the city’s Home to Hope offender aid program. “So they’re not able to be employed. They’re stuck in the house with nothing to do. That’s been a major struggle.”
Martize Tolbert, an ex-offender who now works for the Fountain Fund, a re-entry support program, said that this moment feels like an opportunity to make change. “Let’s talk about things that we can radically do now,” Tolbert said. “Programs over prisons. Now is the time to [be] thought-provoking, to try to figure out institutions that we can use here in Charlottesville.”
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania, who supports these alternatives to incarceration, outlined the challenges ahead. Not everyone in the system is on board. “You have victims, you might have detectives or police officers that have worked on the investigation, you have judges that are going to have to buy in…maybe probation officers that are involved in a violation hearing,” Platania said. “They feel a responsibility that might be at odds with some of what Jim [Hingeley] and I are trying to do. There’s a lot of different interests that you have to factor in as a prosecutor.”
“It’s a shame that it took this crisis to motivate the community to get behind decarceration,” Hingeley said, “but it’s happened now, and when the crisis has passed, we’re going to work to continue doing this.”
Stay tuned for the next edition of the Tom Tom Foundation’s Com Com Live! series, which will feature some of the leaders mentioned in the article and will be free and open to the public. Date to be announced.