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Alternate Routes 

A comprehensive reform of Richmond’s criminal justice system is years behind schedule and barely underway. But some alternative programs are making a dent.

click to enlarge The city’s new jail opened in July. Unlike its predecessor, which was built in the 1960s and featured large bunk rooms, it features modern cells and better conditions — an improvement for staff and inmates, jail officials say.

Scott Elmquist

The city’s new jail opened in July. Unlike its predecessor, which was built in the 1960s and featured large bunk rooms, it features modern cells and better conditions — an improvement for staff and inmates, jail officials say.

Three months after it opened, the jail that Richmond built to relieve overcrowding is over capacity.

The jail is rated by the state to sleep 1,032 inmates, but it housed an average of 1,175 inmates in October — about 14 percent more than it should.

It's an increase of 230 inmates over the record low population of 945, which city officials trumpeted when the facility opened at the end of July.

On opening day, Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones attributed the initial low number to the successful reform of the city's criminal justice system.

The construction of a new jail bedeviled the city for decades. When Jones took office, he pursued a risky political strategy. He put aside a plan to build a bigger jail, with a capacity of 2,000, deliberately building one that has 400 fewer beds than the average jail population. He said he'd reduce the number of inmates through alternative sentencing programs and other methods.

At the time, it appeared he'd pulled it off.

The following day's media coverage highlighted the number of "cells to spare" in the $130 million, six-floor Richmond City Justice Center, located near the former jail at the end of Oliver Hill Way in the East End.

Like the mayor, reporters tied the drop in numbers to the new city programs, a reflection of the mayor's view that justice isn't always served by putting offenders behind bars. The Times-Dispatch noted that Jones and Sheriff C.T. Woody "voiced hope that the population at the new facility might drop even lower."

So why's the jail population heading the opposite direction?

click to enlarge Mayor Dwight Jones and Sheriff C.T. Woody say they want jail to be the last stop for criminals, not the first. Alternative sentencing programs are helping, but they’ve been slow to get rolling while the jail’s population increases. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mayor Dwight Jones and Sheriff C.T. Woody say they want jail to be the last stop for criminals, not the first. Alternative sentencing programs are helping, but they’ve been slow to get rolling while the jail’s population increases.

Because the very thing Jones was celebrating — a comprehensive reform of Richmond's criminal justice system — is years behind schedule and barely underway.

Instead, city officials got their numbers down in time for the new jail's opening by getting the state Department of Corrections to pick up 315 inmates.

People sentenced to prison terms longer than 18 months in Virginia are supposed to be processed into the Department of Corrections within 90 days. In practice, that rarely happens because there aren't enough prison beds at the state level, the Sheriff's Office says.

The state wasn't required to comply with the city's request, but it did. Woody says that as long as he's been sheriff, he's never seen the department pick up as many inmates from the jail at one time — and he acknowledges that it's unlikely to happen again. In an average month, according to Sheriff's Office officials, the state Corrections Department will take about 30 inmates as beds become available.

The maneuver got the jail's daily census down in time for the July 28 opening and Jones was able to declare a victory. But privately, officials say it will have little impact on the jail's long-term population.

Exacerbating that outlook is that things are likely to get tighter at the state level. Virginia officials recently closed two prisons, and a DOC spokesman says that means the state will be picking up fewer inmates.

Under those circumstances, municipal jails will face the additional strain, especially Richmond's, which intentionally was built too small to force a change that's been difficult to realize. But there's hope that the city's sparkling new jail won't devolve into an overcrowded pit of despair like its predecessor.

Behind the bluster, the alternative sentencing policies that Jones and Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring have been working to implement are slowly picking up momentum. And so are other efforts in the city and the courts.

Herring says the new jail's population will level out in the coming year. As it does, he says, officials will get a clearer picture of how successful their efforts have been to reinvent the justice system.

Until then, there are encouraging signs of change.

 

click to enlarge Calling it a positive influence on his life, Dominic Lemon is the second graduate of the city’s new day reporting center, a jail alternative that requires daily check-ins. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Calling it a positive influence on his life, Dominic Lemon is the second graduate of the city’s new day reporting center, a jail alternative that requires daily check-ins.

Dominic Lemon, 30, faced his eighth charge of driving with a suspended license.

Lemon is a car guy who owns not one but two Mercury Grand Marquises and works as a mechanic in Henrico County. Somewhat perversely, he's been unable to keep a license since 2002, when he blew off a fine after moving from Ohio to Richmond.

It's been a problem.

At his last court date, he reluctantly agreed to his lawyer's recommendation that he accept an offer to serve his sentence at the city's new day reporting center, which opened in March.

The center is one of Richmond's most visible and expensive efforts to provide a sentencing alternative to the jail. To run it, the city awarded an $800,000 contract to the private prison operator Geo Group in December. The center offers a six-month program that requires daily check-ins and attendance at classes three times a week.

Lemon initially wasn't a fan. "When I came through the door," he says, "I didn't cuss everybody out, but I wanted to. I truly didn't want to be here."

The whole thing sounded like a terrible deal, and Lemon immediately regretted trading a sentence that would have amounted to 15 days in jail for six months of daily check-ins and drug tests.

The center is located in Richmond's decrepit Public Safety Building on Ninth Street, which also houses the city's cold-weather homeless shelter, adult drug court and the Police Department's evidence and property storage, the lobby of which reeks of the pounds of un-burned marijuana stored inside.

A crumbling tile facade wraps around the building. Inside, at the end of a long, empty corridor, sits the day reporting center.

In strong contrast to those surroundings, it's a bright, refurbished suite of offices and classrooms — an oasis, says Rufus Flemming, the city's director of justice services.

In advance of Halloween, a paper skeleton is taped to the check-in desk. Encouraging words line the walls in foot-tall letters: persistence, dream, motivation, victorious, growth. There's a bulletin board near the entrance lined with construction paper. It says "Party Time" and has pictures of men celebrating their advancement through the program at a pizza party thrown by the center.

The center's director, Stephanie Saucier, a former probation officer from Williamsburg, says the program is about rules and discipline. But it's also about positive reinforcement, she says, hence the pizza and other incentives her caseworkers dole out for good behavior.

To be sure, it isn't all a party. There are group sessions, cognitive therapy, essays, employment requirements and the regular drug testing. If you break one of the center's rules, you might find yourself writing an essay about why you shouldn't have.

Saucier and city staff stress the evidence-based nature of the curriculum — that statistically, researchers have found the approach works. In Richmond, city officials will track cases to see whether program participants re-offend. In about three years, the city will have a better idea of how the program is working.

Lemon provides an early, if not anecdotal, review: The program is not, as he initially suspected, a load of crap. He's its second graduate. And he says that among other things, he's become a lot better at controlling his temper.

He says he'd recommend it to people who want to change their lives. And to anyone who might think it's an easy way out of a jail term, he says, "You might as well just go back to court."

"I felt like I was in school again," he says. "I got books. One was thick as hell — about changing your inner thinking. This program ain't no cake walk through the park."

 

click to enlarge The new jail, near the former one in the city’s East End, has a rated capacity of 1,030 inmates. But officials say that if the inmate population keeps rising, there are enough beds to sleep 1,500. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The new jail, near the former one in the city’s East End, has a rated capacity of 1,030 inmates. But officials say that if the inmate population keeps rising, there are enough beds to sleep 1,500.

As of mid-October, 110 offenders had been sentenced to the day reporting center and were actively participating. Another 37 people started it and flunked out — not everyone's taken to it like Lemon did.

The center can handle about 150 active participants. That doesn't correlate to a 150-prisoner drop in the jail's population because, as in Lemon's case, not everyone who goes through the six-month program was going to serve six months in jail. Lemon, for example, was likely to spend only 15 to 30 days behind bars but took a spot at the center for six months.

The commonwealth's attorney, Herring, says there's been a learning curve in finding the right candidates to sentence to the center.

Addicts, for example, don't work. They need drug treatment, not behavioral therapy and job requirements.

The ideal candidates, Herring says, are offenders who are at high risk to re-offend, but whose offenses pose a low threat to public safety.

What does that look like in practice?

Herring doesn't hesitate: "Dealers," he says. "Low-level dealers that don't have a history of violence are promising candidates on the assumption that they actually have the gray matter to internalize a curriculum and benefit from it."

And thieves. "Someone who has stolen — several times, as far as I'm concerned — but has not been a robber within any recent amount of time. Going into a store and stealing CDs is quite different than putting a gun to somebody's head and taking the same CD."

Another likely candidate is a traffic-court flunky, someone who, like Lemon, might have five or six convictions of driving with a suspended license and faces a 60- to 90-day sentence. "Well, it just doesn't make sense to take up a jail bed with that person," Herring says. "Send them to the [day reporting center] in hopes that they get it the blank together."

 

click to enlarge Days after the new jail opened, workers began demolishing the old one, below. The property will serve as a parking lot. Crowding issues aside, jail officials say the new facility is safer and more secure than its predecessor. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Days after the new jail opened, workers began demolishing the old one, below. The property will serve as a parking lot. Crowding issues aside, jail officials say the new facility is safer and more secure than its predecessor.

Frank Knaack, the director of public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, says alternative sentencing measures are beginning to catch on around the country. But in Virginia, he says, Richmond is ahead of the game.

"I think a lot of folks in the legislature are stuck in that tough-on-crime perspective rather than a smart-on-crime perspective," Knacck says.

As the day reporting center fills up and its true impact on the daily jail population becomes clear, Herring says other alternatives he and Jones have worked to institute will become more important.

Some of them were first instituted in 2012 but are still ramping up. One is a specialized court docket and alternative sentencing for people who have mental health problems. There's also alternative sentencing for people with substance-abuse issues.

Susan Hansen, the director of the Richmond Public Defender's Office, says the mental-health docket stands out as a success. "The jail is just not equipped to handle medical issues like that," she says.

Similarly, under Richmond Police Chief Ray Tarasovic, it's mandatory for all police officers to be trained on how to handle interactions with mentally ill suspects. Accompanying that change, the city worked with Chesterfield County to institute a drop-off center at Chippenham Hospital, where people exhibiting mental health issues can be evaluated immediately.

In the past year, Richmond officers took 106 people to the center who otherwise might have been taken to jail, according to the department. After they're evaluated, they can be directed by officers to an appropriate program or resource for treatment.

Options for offenders who are dealing with drug addiction are more limited, Hansen says. That's problematic because she says most of her office's clients have addiction issues.

Hansen and Herring say they were surprised when they learned the day reporting center wasn't a good option for addicts.

But data shows the city is making progress in that area. Over a year, the number of people who went through new residential and outpatient treatment centers as a result of an alternative sentencing program nearly doubled from 53 to 98.

Other alternative programs aren't as successful. The city has had trouble wringing results out of an effort to reduce the number of people who are sitting in jail and awaiting trial because they couldn't come up with the bond money.

Herring recently stopped requesting bond if it was for less than $10,000. Instead, defendants are released on personal recognizance — a promise that they'll return for their court date. In cases where the bond was going to be set for that little in the first place, he says, the person wasn't considered a threat to the community. Statistically, he says, having bond on the line doesn't do much to ensure an appearance at trial.

But judges must agree to the bond, Hansen and Herring note — and not all have been open to letting go of the practice.

In cases where it isn't an option to not set a bond, the city has rolled out a home monitoring program — basically a bunch of ankle bracelets to keep people on house arrest. In all of last year, 43 people charged with misdemeanors and 61 people charged with felonies were monitored for an average of 51 days.

Those two efforts have netted the city an imperceptible decrease in the number of pre-trial inmates at the city jail. Statistics from the Sheriff's Office show that on the day the new jail opened, there were 628 pre-trial inmates, compared with 593 on the same day the year before.

"There's been a lot of positives, but there's so many people that need services," Hansen says. "Changing the culture takes time."

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Regardless of the impact on the jail's numbers, city leaders seem to have reached a consensus that implementing alternative programs, at least philosophically, is the right thing to do. And the efforts made a dent in the jail population — just not as big as initially suggested.

At the jail's opening, Jones repeated one of his favorite justice-oriented pieces of rhetoric: His administration wants to make jail the last option, not the first. He championed the decision to open a 1,000-bed facility instead of a 2,000-bed jail not only as fiscally prudent, but also as an opportunity to reform the system.

Officials also have started downplaying the importance of the new jail's capacity, saying the state rating "is just a number" set by the state Department of Corrections. The jail superintendent, Col. Roy Witham, says there are 1,500 beds available in the facility if officials move to double-bunking cells in the medium-security wards. And with modern amenities such as air conditioning, they note, the jail will be a far better place than the old facility, regardless of how many inmates it holds.

But the lengths that officials went to get their numbers below the rated capacity before opening day shows the importance they place on the number. And there are indications that city officials aren't certain that the reforms they've put in place are going to be enough to keep the jail's population where they want it.

Herring says his office already is working with the city to develop an in-house program that expands community-service sentencing alternatives, potentially embedding offenders in city departments such as public works, where they can learn job skills while they work off their time.

Officials say the political will to make change will continue the mad dash that led up to the new jail's opening. "As long as the mayor is here and I'm here," Herring says, "this is the direction we're moving." S

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