As counties across the U.S. take steps to reduce local jail populations to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, Prince William's jail population has dropped 8% over the past week. But the facility still remains above capacity.
Maj. Amanda Lambert, director of support services at Prince William-Manassas Adult Detention Center, said the jail’s population fell from 752 last Friday, March 20, to 692 on Thursday, March 26. The jail’s operating capacity is 667, according to the county website.
Lambert said the county’s criminal justice system is taking “proactive and progressive preventative measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread in the Adult Detention Center.”
Those measures include new procedures to isolate and triage at-risk or symptomatic inmates, maintain social distancing between staff and the general public and screen incoming inmates for symptoms of the illness.
Lambert said the jail is going "above and beyond" the guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that inmates have access to medical staff at all hours of the day.
“We want families to know that we are taking all the necessary precautions,” Lambert said.
Lambert would not comment, however, on how the jail is maintaining social distancing between inmates because the jail’s operational procedures are not available to the public.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth, who represents Prince William County and the Cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, announced March 20 that her office is working with the defense bar, the jail and the courts to facilitate the release of non-violent offenders who do not pose a risk to the public in response to the spread of the coronavirus crisis in Virginia.
“Since COVID-19 we have seen sharp increases in the number of releases through the court process,” Lambert said Thursday.
Advocates say people housed in jails and prisons at a high-risk for the spread of COVID-19, and are calling on local, state and federal officials to facilitate the release of non-violent offenders who can be monitored from home during the crisis.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called for the immediate release of vulnerable people from prisons and jails as identified by the CDC, as well as people in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis.
“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, and that downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, in a March 18 press statement.
Part of a larger trend
Even as Prince William County’s criminal justice system has taken steps to release non-violent offenders during the crisis, officials say the population of the Prince William-Manassas ADC was already on the decline in the months leading up to the outbreak.
Since October 2019, the county jail’s population has fallen by about 25% overall, or by about 230 inmates, Lambert said.
The reason? The county is increasingly using alternatives to incarceration such as pretrial supervision and electronic monitoring to keep low-risk offenders out of jail – the same recommendations Gov. Ralph Northam's administration is making to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the jails.
Lambert said the jail, courts, commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the county’s department of criminal justice services have been using evidence-based practices more often to keep some low-risk offenders out of jail while they await their trials, which can take weeks or months.
“The use of pretrial services has become more frequent. And there’s been a steady decline in the jail population,” Lambert said.
Defendants on pretrial supervision are typically monitored by pretrial officers who aim to ensure they stay out of trouble while they await their court dates.
The increased use of pretrial alternatives also means there are fewer people taking up costly jail beds. In 2018, it cost the county about $90 per day to house a single person at the jail.
Steven Austin, the county's director of Criminal Justice Services, said the county’s pretrial caseload has increased dramatically in recent years. In the last year alone, the county’s pretrial caseload rose by about 22%, he said. And that will likely increase even more in the coming years.
The county’s proposed 2021 budget predicts that by 2025, the county’s Pretrial Supervision Program is expected to grow an additional 183%.
“The court is relying much more on pretrial services to supervise defendants who are released and pending trial,” Austin said.
In addition to the growth of the county’s pretrial caseload, Austin said has set fewer cash bails for defendants since January. Pretrial data provided by the Office of Criminal Justice Service show a 25% increase in the use of “personal recognizance” and unsecured bonds since the beginning of the year.
Personal recognizance and unsecured bonds do not require defendants to pay the court to be released from jail.
“For individuals placed on pretrial services as a condition of release, the court is using cash bond less frequently,” Austin said.
The jail is undergoing an expansion to add 204 beds. The project is due to be complete in July. It’s not clear whether the construction timeline will be affected by the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
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