Some Virginia cities are pushing to clear jails of nonviolent offenders. Others? Not so much.

Some Virginia cities are pushing to clear jails of nonviolent offenders. Others? Not so much.
Gov. Ralph Northam has encouraged judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to work together to clear low-risk offenders out of crowded local jails (Source: Pixabay)

The judge was conflicted.

The woman appearing before him seeking bond on a felony larceny charge had a long history of petty crimes and a terrible record of following court orders: six failure to appears, four probation violations and two contempt of court citations.

But she also suffers from a disease that compromised her immune system, according to her lawyers, who set up the hearing in Richmond General District Court last week in hopes of getting her out of jail, where experts worry the spread of COVID-19 will be especially difficult to contain.

“This is not the type of case I would release someone on bond for at all,” Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland told the defendant, Devin “Yaya” Thompson, who police accused of shoplifting from Walmart.

Then he did it anyway, noting the special threat her pre-existing condition poses and ordering that she instead be held on house arrest until her trial.

Gov. Ralph Northam has encouraged judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to work together to clear low-risk offenders out of crowded local jails, where people are held in close-quarters, sanitation is questionable, pre-existing health conditions are common and the quality of medical care can be suspect even when there isn’t a looming global pandemic.

But how seriously individual local officials are taking that advice and who they consider low risk has varied wildly across the state — and sometimes within the same courthouse.

Some jailers and prosecutors are moving fast to release non-violent offenders, often to house arrest — framing the steps as essential for the safety of inmates and staff. And in some localities, including Richmond, nearly every case is a fight between defense attorneys and prosecutors, with the outcome varying dramatically depending on inmates’ circumstances and the judge overseeing the hearing.

The Virginia Mercury is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.