At least six inmates in the Arlington County jail have been released ahead of schedule, following the announcement that a sheriff’s deputy tested positive for coronavirus.
The releases came after the public defender’s office filed motions with Arlington Circuit Court to reconsider the sentences of around 20 inmates, a day after the April 23 announcement. Public Defender Brad Haywood says he also petitioned Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam for clemency for 63 local inmates, though that request is still pending.
“We have spoken with the administration and they appear to be taking the request seriously,” Haywood said of the petition. “We are providing more detailed information to them at their request. No movement yet, but we remain optimistic.”
Jails and prisons across the U.S. have been especially vulnerable to spread of the virus, with around 5,000 infections and more than 100 deaths attributable to correctional facilities, according to the CDC.
Coronavirus “spreads easily and aggressively from person to person,” Haywood noted in an April 24 letter to the circuit court. “While there are no reported cases of COVID-19 among the Arlington County Detention Facility’s incarcerated population, because of and as evidenced by the Arlington Deputy Sheriff’s positive test, infiltration is inevitable.
“The risk to inmates is going to persist regardless of how effectively the pandemic is dealt with in the community,” he added. “This is a problem that cannot be avoided, and it is quite literally a matter of life and death.”
Haywood has been assisted in his efforts by Arlington’s top prosecutor, who took office at the beginning of the year after running on a criminal justice reform platform, and the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail. All three have been working to reduce the inmate population during the pandemic.
“Pretty early on, the public defender and I, and the Sheriff and I, got together and realized that what we really needed to do was thin out the jail population, both for the safety of the people who were incarcerated and also for the safety of the Sheriff’s deputies,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, during an online town hall about a week ago.
“We started going through the lists to ask the question, for each person do they really need to be there? So we were pulling files and proactively calling defense attorneys and suggesting they file motions for reconsideration,” she continued. “The public defender was doing this at exactly the same time. We’re lucky that we have a good relationship and so we were talking about the cases and collaborating.”
Despite concerns for the incarcerated, Tafti said it’s not realistic to empty the jails completely.
“Obviously we can’t let everybody out, but trying to get as many folks, and to be as surgical as possible — to ask the question: is this person really going to flee or is this person really going to reoffend?” said Tafti.
There has been a 25-30% reduction in prison population “over the past few months,” according to Tafti. Judges, meanwhile, haven’t always been as receptive to the idea of releasing inmates as the prosecutor’s office. The Washington Post reported in March that at least one Arlington judge was pushing back against recommendations to release certain inmates.
Arlington County police are contributing to the thinning of the jail population, Tafti said, in part by being more selective about who is held in jail and who is released pending trial.
“[Police] are actually issuing summonses more than arresting people, so they’ve tried to pull back that way,” she said. “In the initial bond hearings we’re still trying to be as surgical and careful as possible, and make sure as many people [get bail] as possible.”
Tafti said her office no longer asks for cash bail, but depending on circumstances still has to ask for some detainees to be held. It’s a tough decision, though, given the health risks in jail.
“It’s important that we don’t put them in a position where they’re likely to get sicker when they haven’t been convicted of a crime yet,” she said.