The Civil Rights & Racial Justice Program (CRRJ) fights to decriminalize poverty in Virginia while dismantling systems of racial injustice. In the courts, CRRJ is currently focused on how Virginia’s bail practices harm low-income communities and communities of color. Judicial officials in Virginia too often make decisions that result in the pretrial detention of low-income Virginians, either through detaining them without a bond, including for low-level offenses, or setting cash bonds in amounts that many people cannot afford to pay, so they languish in jail. Once someone is held in jail, even for as short as a day, a cascade of consequences that push people deeper into poverty can result, such as job loss, eviction, and many others. Each day in Virginia, poor people suffer under our current pretrial system.
On any given night, Virginia jails hold over 28,000 people, roughly 1 in 200 Virginians between the ages of 15 – 64. Of those, around 13,000 are being held pretrial – 46% of people in our jails aren’t there because they were convicted of any crime. And the problem has been getting worse: between 2012 and 2017, the average daily population of Virginians held in jail pretrial increased by 10%.
Pretrial justice is also a racial justice issue. Though Black Virginians make up only about 20% of our state’s population, they compromise 43% of Virginia’s jail population described above. For more detailed data, click here.
There are many issues with Virginia’s pretrial system – wherein bail decisions are made – that contribute to the unacceptable numbers of legally innocent people being held in our jails. To name just a few:
In Virginia, after an arrest, a person is taken before a magistrate (not a judge) to determine bail. These proceedings happen behind closed doors, not in open court. During the initial hearing with the magistrate, the accused is not provided an attorney. Almost universally, people accused of crimes have no lawyer at their initial bail hearing.
Virginia still uses a secured bond or “money bail” for all levels of offenses, including misdemeanors. This is when a person accused of a crime is ordered to pay a certain amount of money to be free before trial. When people cannot pay the monetary amount, they remain incarcerated, essentially being punished long before their case is ever heard.
In addition to the secured bond, magistrates and judges in Virginia can decide to hold people without bond for any type of offense, including misdemeanors. This means the person will be kept in jail until their trial, no matter what kind of conditions they could meet. Data show that holding people on “no bond” is the number one decision made by judicial officers initially considering bail in Virginia.
When people are held pretrial, it creates immense pressure to plead guilty to crimes (regardless of potential defenses) to minimize or avoid the destabilizing effects of being in jail, thus increasing mass incarceration. Given these issues and the fact that Virginia’s pretrial detention rate exceeds the national rate, Virginia’s broken pretrial system is in desperate need of reform. Pretrial justice for all means going deeper than “quick fix” solutions, to ensure that any changes reduce the overall number of people detained pretrial while also eliminating racial and wealth disparities.