By Gabriela de Camargo Gonçalves
The backlog of cases in Virginia’s circuit court system worsened during the pandemic. Some people have been jailed for more than a year as they wait for their court date, according to records requested from several jails across the state.
Circuit courts handle most civil cases of more than $25,000, along with family matters. It also has authority to hear felonies, in addition to appealed cases from the general district courts and juvenile and domestic relations district courts.
Virginia’s speedy trial law states that people in jail on a felony charge must be tried within five months. If they are not in jail, they must be tried within nine months.
People can remain jailed for a number of reasons, including case continuances, multiple trials, and other circumstances, according to the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office.
A sentenced felon can sometimes wait up to five years in jail for a bed in prison, according to the sheriff’s office.
It can be difficult to determine the total jail population, or how long people wait in jail for a trial or sentencing. No central authority such as the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails holds access to those records, according to a response from the board. The board’s role is to “guarantee the health, safety, and welfare of staff and offenders under its jurisdiction.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections, or VADOC, referred a Capital News Service reporter’s request for statewide jail population to the Board. The Board replied that the information would have to be obtained through each individual jail in Virginia.
CNS contacted five jails based on region and population.
The waiting: The people serving time in jail the longest
A person has been jailed almost seven years in the Virginia Beach Correctional Center. They entered the jail on Aug. 24, 2016 and have a felony charge and several misdemeanors, according to a records request from the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office. They now await sentencing.
A person has been jailed for over five years in the Richmond City Jail, the Richmond Sheriff’s Office stated in response to a records request. Their stay began on Feb. 8, 2018.
A person entered the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center on Aug. 27, 2019, on a first degree murder charge. This person currently has about four and a half months until their next court date, according to a records request from the Fairfax jail.
An individual incarcerated almost three years in Henrico County awaits adjudication for pending charges, according to the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office. They entered the jail on July 30, 2020. Henrico County did not respond to requests for additional information by publication time.
An individual at the Roanoke City Jail was jailed in November 2021 and has a court date scheduled for September, according to the jail’s public information officer. The individual has returned to court 15 times to deal with five felony charges and has four more dates scheduled, according to the public information office.
The system: Some factors that contributed to court backlogs
“Most people ask for jury trials,” said Edward Jewett, Richmond Circuit Court clerk. “So we have a lot scheduled, and so some have to get bumped. It’s not a terrible backlog, but I would say that there is some backlog.”
There were no 2022 studies on whether more circuit court judgeships should be established, the judiciary stated in its annual report to the General Assembly. The recommendation was made to fill current vacancies. At the end of the year, there were six statewide circuit court vacancies, five general district court vacancies and two juvenile and domestic relations court vacancies, per the report.
A judge is more likely to find someone guilty than a jury, according to Richmond Chief Public Defender Tracy Paner.
Although inmates have a mandated right to a “speedy” trial, in Richmond, there aren’t necessarily dates available within those time frames, according to Paner. Often, the way to comply with the law is to have a substitute judge in place, Paner said.
The pandemic also stopped trials for a while, Paner said. Some jury trials have been postponed and some are already scheduled into next year, she said.
“There are clients who would plead guilty to that charge that they otherwise would not, when they’re looking at no jail time or jail time they’ve already served,” Paner said. “Just as a mechanism to get out of the jail.”
A person waiting in jail faces the unknown and hopes for the best, but prepares for the worst, according to Paner.
The public defenders under Paner’s charge average a daily estimate of 100 cases per lawyer, she said. The types of cases vary, and there’s no determination as to how many are being actively worked on and how many are in a waiting period, according to Paner.
The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals states the caseload of a public defender should not exceed 150 felonies per year or more than 400 misdemeanors per year, excluding traffic cases.
The culture: Many say jail is worse than prison
People experience more anxiety in jail than in prison, according to Donyel Burrell. Burrell served almost two decades in prison on felony charges from the mid-’90s, and then returned to jail for several violations.
A person in jail has more anxiety because they are not very involved in the legal process, and do not know what might happen to them. There is less anxiety in prison, once there is a resolution. There also are more opportunities in prison, such as programs and opportunities to make money, according to Burrell.
“It’s just a lot of anxiety, a lot of wondering what’s going on and what’s going to happen,” Burrell said.
Burrell now works with REAL LIFE, an organization that helps individuals affected by incarceration, homelessness or substance use disorder, according to its website.
Burrell has a front row view of the impact from the court’s backlog, he said. He sees people from REAL LIFE whose cases keep getting “postponed, and postponed again,” Burrell said.
“I see guys with petty larceny stuck there for four or five months waiting on their court dates,” Burrell said.
REAL LIFE founder Sarah Scarbrough was the Richmond jail program director from 2013 to 2017. She oversaw behavior, health and preparatory programs, which ranged from addressing the continuous cycle of incarceration, to yoga, job preparation and more, according to Scarbrough.
The organization provides recovery housing options to people who have experienced overdoses, and who may be grateful for the incarceration or else they would be dead, Scarbrough said.
“It’s sad that there isn’t a process in place where they can be stopped and sat down in a place that isn’t the penal system,” Scarbrough said.
Scarbrough polled REAL LIFE program members for this story, and asked what was a more “comfortable” environment: jail or prison. With 34 votes, 95% voted for prison being more comfortable.
The system is designed to lock people up, Scarbrough said. The system is not designed for reform, she said.
“That is an issue,” Scarbrough said. “We’re saying correction, but we’re not truly providing opportunities, or these opportunities are only talking points for somebody to be reelected.”
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
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