Mar 11, 2024 - News

How Virginia emptied its prisons more than any state in the U.S.

Change in prison populations, 2021 to 2022
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Virginia's prison population shrank 10.5% between 2021 and 2022, per the latest Justice Department data.

Why it matters: That's the greatest decline of any state during a period when the U.S. was seeing its prison population increase for the first time in nearly a decade.

The potential reasons for it are complicated.

  • People often point to pandemic-related early releases to manage COVID spread, which Virginia had in place until July 2021.
  • But the Marshall Project found that nationwide, and in Virginia, those releases didn't make as much of a dent as other factors.
  • These include people receiving fewer sentences due to court closures, parole officers sending fewer people back to prison for minor violations and prisons not accepting new people.
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Zoom in: Other considerations in Virginia are its new-ish system that allows some incarcerated people to earn credit for early release, reported the Times-Dispatch in 2022.

  • The state also raised the felony threshold for larceny and decriminalized small amounts of marijuana possession in 2020.

By the numbers: 27,162 people were in state or federal prisons in Virginia in 2022 compared to 38,403 in the peak year of 2015, report Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj.

  • That's a 29.3% drop.

Yes, but: Virginia's incarceration rate 0f 749 per 100,000 people surpasses the U.S., per the Prison Policy Initiative.

  • Richmond's is one of the highest in the state at 1,092 per 100,000 people.
  • It's even greater in some parts of the city like Gilpin Court, a predominantly Black public housing community, where it's 2,496 per 100,000.
  • In Virginia's state prisons, the imprisonment rate for Black people is 4.1 times greater than their white counterparts, according to PPI.

What's next: Virginia lawmakers defeated a bill that would have allowed incarcerated people who have served at least 15 years of their sentence to petition the court for a sentence reduction.

  • It'll now be carried over to next year's session.
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