How the pandemic has affected the area’s criminal justice system

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

People reported fewer crimes overall in Harrisonburg over the last year. And fewer defendants stayed in jail as they awaited trial. At the same time, though, many of those trials have been delayed, forcing the courts to put in overtime in order to catch up on the backlog of cases.

Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s criminal justice system — like many facets of life — has operated a little differently since the pandemic began, in some cases prompting prosecutors and judges to adapt and make exceptions they wouldn’t normally do. 

That began last March when Virginia entered the pandemic lock-down phase. Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst reviewed the cases of inmates in the Rockingham Harrisonburg Regional Jail and those from our court system in the Middle River Regional Jail. She was looking for folks she felt could await trial at home or finish their sentences early without posing a risk to themselves or public safety.

“We have worked to put folks on pre-trial to avoid incarceration and review lists provided to us by the jail to assure non-violent defendants can get bond if possible,” Garst told The Citizen in an email.  

She said for many non-violent offenders that her office has “regularly agreed to bond, many times unsecured.” Being given an unsecured bond means that the defendant is released without having to pay bail, with the expectation that they will show up for their court date. 

Between March 2020 and March 2021, Garst’s office agreed to allow 115 local inmates to stay out of jail by arranging unsecured bonds for them or modifying their sentences, Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Christopher Bean confirmed to The Citizen.

To arrange for inmates who might not have been able to pay their bail to get an unsecured bond — and to release some who had 30 to 60 days left of their sentence — Garst had to take each case back to the judge who had presided over it. That’s something she wouldn’t have done before the pandemic.

“I never want to be disrespectful to a judge that makes a decision,” Garst said in a phone interview, “because they have an even tougher job than we do.”

But COVID-19 greatly complicated life inside jails. The living environment of close quarters is conducive to spreading the virus – as was the case in Middle River Regional Jail where over two-thirds ended up catching COVID-19 this winter. So Garst and the judges worked to release some inmates charged with or convicted of nonviolent crimes, particularly those with medical conditions or who didn’t rack up infractions while incarcerated.

“The hardest decision I make is making sure somebody’s safety is not going to be affected by that,” Garst said. 

Many of those with shorter sentences who were not released early had been convicted of domestic violence charges, she said.

Those efforts played a part in maintaining a more or less steady jail population for Rockingham County and Harrisonburg, which had been increasing in previous years. 

According to documents from Community Criminal Justice Board meetings, the total number of inmates at the Rockingham Harrisonburg Regional Jail, plus those from Harrisonburg and Rockingham held at Middle River Regional Jail, has ranged from 452 to 563 since July 2020. 

In a Feb. 2019 article, The Citizen reported that “since the end of 2016, the total inmate population at both facilities [who were sentenced through the Harrisonburg/Rockingham court system] has consistently been above 500 and rose steadily to over 600 in 2018.”

Courts now working overtime

For people awaiting trial, whether in jail or at home, the pandemic has almost ubiquitously extended the process. On March 16, 2020, Chief Justice Donald Lemons of the Supreme Court of Virginia declared a “judicial emergency” in response to the pandemic, suspending all non-essential district and circuit court proceedings. 

Over the past year, courts across the state have transitioned many proceedings to video conferences as they begin to move through the backlog of cases. 

Garst told The Citizen that some cases she began working on two years ago are just now coming to trial, as a result of that slow-down. Before the pandemic, judges would begin hearing cases at 9 a.m., and often finish by 3 p.m. 

Now, Garst said, court days routinely run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. as the system tries to catch up.

Decreasing crime rate

There have also been shifts in the crimes being reported in Harrisonburg. 

Philip Sturm, a crime analyst for the Harrisonburg Police Department, told The Citizen that reported violent crimes went down 5% from 2019 to 2020, and property crimes went down 18%. However, he said that some specific crimes are being reported more often. For instance, license plate theft was up 11%.

“Some of them are up, some of them are down,” Sturm said. “Robbery was down, but aggravated assaults were up a little bit.”

Another factor to keep in mind when reviewing crime statistics, he said, is that the city has a relatively low crime rate overall. For instance, there were no homicides in Harrisonburg in 2019, but there was one in 2020.

Interim Police Chief Gabriel Camacho said the overall decrease in crime is, in part, influenced by the pandemic “because we had limited people out there, but also, technology has been a help for us — and also continuing relationships with the community.”

The police department’s biggest technological advancement has been a records management system created by the Texas-based company Tyler Technologies. That went live in November 2019. The previous system had been in place since the mid-1990s. 

Sturm likened the transition to “going from a cassette tape to a CD.”

The Tyler system made it easier to search for and collate data, he said. Officers can type reports from their vehicles now. And because the system is GIS-based, police reports have location data built right in.

One way the police department has used the Tyler system is to track their “proactive patrols,” and align that map to maps of where crimes are being reported. 

For example, Sturm said police often have to respond to multiple complaints of burglaries reported at student housing developments each January when college students return for the spring semester. So the department mapped the housing complexes that reported the most theft and developed “patrol zones” based on those maps.

“We got something like a 55% decrease in burglaries in those months … it’s been uncharacteristically low,” Sturm said. 

And while some of that was attributable to the pandemic, he noted that most students are still in town.

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