Virginia Bail 101

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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 or bail process 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 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. It punishes poor people by keeping them locked up, when a wealthy person in a similar situation would be free. In Virginia, many individuals are incarcerated pretrial simply because they cannot afford their bond. 
  • In addition to secured bond, magistrates and judges in Virginia can decide to hold people without bail 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.

When people are held pretrial, it creates immense pressure to plead guilty to crimes (regardless of potential defenses) to minimize or avoid jail time, increasing mass incarceration. Given these issues and the fact that Virginia’s pretrial detention rate exceeds the national rate, Virginia’s broken bail system is in desperate need of reform.