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Council focuses on disparity in area inmates

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Amid discussions of Middle River Regional Jail’s $40 million expansion proposal, Criminal Justice Planner Frank Sottaceti outlined to the city council on Tuesday how Harrisonburg’s share of inmates at the facility is less than half of Rockingham County’s. 

Sottaceti — who serves both the city and county, two of the five jurisdictions that own Middle River — also outlined the progress of some of the alternative programs to incarceration. 

“When we have this discussion about Middle River, it is important to understand that we are obligated to properly care for individuals in our custody,” he said.

Between both Middle River and the Rockingham Harrisonburg Regional Jail, the city currently has 172 inmates and the county has 379, Sottaceti said. While those figures weren’t the main thrust of Sottaceti’s presentation, council members homed in on what they saw as a disparity.

“To me, that says that the programs that we have are working on the city side,” Mayor Deanna Reed said.

“The county has more people, but they don’t have that many more people,” said Council Member Chris Jones. “We are overreacting for nonviolent offenses. …  it’s in the data. We are spending too much money on nonviolent offenses, especially compared to what we spend on schools and workforce development.”

This comes as the Middle River Regional Jail’s authority board is seeking to make the case for expansion to the five localities that fund it — Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and Rockingham and Augusta counties. 

Jones also pointed out that about 200 inmates currently housed at Middle River are eligible to be transferred into Virginia Department of Corrections facilities. Between those inmates and what Jones alluded to as over-incarceration on Rockingham County’s part, he said the facility has as many as 400 more people than it should. 

“There is more that can be done to release folks,” Jones said. 

Sottaceti also gave an overview of some of the city and county’s alternative programs to incarceration, including probation, the drug treatment court program and the crisis intervention team, which is made up of a sheriff’s deputy and a mental health clinician who respond to calls involving mental health crises. The team began as a part-time unit in 2015 but was put on pause for part of 2020 because of the pandemic.

Sottaceti said the crisis intervention team began operating full time in October, and since then, “they have treated and responded to 155 unique individuals.” He said the team has responded to some of those people multiple times.

He called the drug court “sort of a divining rod of opinion,” as only 12 have graduated from the program thus far. But, he said, the program isn’t yet three years old, and there are currently 57 people enrolled, 15 of whom are slated to graduate in a few months.

As far as new programs, Sottaceti said there has been talk of starting a mental health docket dating back to 2014, and that concept “has been reinvigorated and discussions will take place.” For arrestees who qualify, a team consisting of a judge, commonwealth’s attorney, defense attorney, probation or pre-trial services, and a staff member of the Community Services Board could recommend mental health or substance abuse treatment in lieu of jail time. 

“We want to look at alternatives instead of automatically saying yes, we need to expand Middle River,” Reed said, adding praise for the drug court. “I would rather … put our money into our programs. Into our people, into our community.”

Council approves one development, shelves another

The council also heard requests for rezoning, special use permits, and land use guide amendments related to two multi-family housing projects, choosing to approve one and refer the other back to the Planning Commission for further review. 

A rezoning request and land use guide amendment for the Stoney Ridge Development on South Main Street, on the southern end of town, won unanimous approval from the council. The project straddles the city-county line, and is planned to include six apartment buildings – for a total of 72 dwelling units – on the city side.

But a rezoning and special use permit request for a 142-unit apartment complex on Blue Ridge Drive, near Country Club Road, hit a snag. 

Adam Fletcher, director of community development, said the project “does have merit.” However, staff recommended denying the developer’s request rezone the area to allow for higher-density housing but still obtain a special use permit to construct an even higher density development. 

Fletcher said those regulations were written in 2007 and were due to be updated in the city’s complete overhaul of the zoning ordinance. The Planning Commission voted 4-2 against the project, with Commissioners Brent Finnegan and Gil Coleman dissenting, and Vice-Mayor Sal Romero absent. 

Jones moved to refer the requests back to the Planning Commission, in light of the comprehensive housing study, which was completed since the commission reviewed the project. The council unanimously agreed. Jones also asked city staff to draft an amendment of the zoning ordinance pertaining to medium density residential housing for the council to review at a future meeting.

Also at the meeting: 

  • Interim Police Chief Gabriel Camacho announced that the Harrisonburg Police Department had been accredited by the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission.
  • The council unanimously appointed Gil Coleman to the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority board. 

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