By C. SUAREZ ROJAS Richmond Times-Dispatch
Jul 23, 2019
Henrico County Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone Nelson disagrees with Henrico Sheriff Mike Wade’s assertion that jail can be a therapeutic environment for inmates.
As a community task force continues to explore how the county can divert people with substance abuse disorders away from jail and support their recovery, the idea of a new, low-security jail for people serving weekend jail sentences or enrolled in an addiction recovery program run by the Sheriff’s Office has not been ruled out.
In a Tuesday presentation to the Recovery Roundtable — a panel made up mostly of county officials and private health care industry professionals — Wade said the county’s population growth over the past 20 years has mirrored an increase in the local jail population that is now overcrowded.
The Sheriff’s Office was originally scheduled to speak to the committee in September, but county officials rescheduled the presentation to Tuesday after Nelson said earlier this month that the committee had yet to explain why the county’s inmate population has grown in recent years as other localities in the region and around the country are seeing a decrease.
With a capacity to hold 1,341 inmates in the county’s two jails, Henrico’s daily inmate population last year averaged nearly 1,450 people.
Wade, who is retiring at the end of the year, said officials expect that the inmate population will continue to grow.
“To think that we don’t need new space when everybody else has it is a misconception,” he said after noting that the county has hired new assistant prosecutors and built new schools, a police station and a mental health care building in the past two decades to accommodate that growth.
Wade said he believes the RISE and ORBIT drug addiction recovery programs in the jails are examples of criminal justice reform, but Nelson said the legacy of racial inequality in the criminal justice system cannot be overlooked — and that he’s concerned that whoever replaces Wade might not share his vision for a recovery-oriented correctional facility.
“I don’t look at building jails like we look at building schools,” Nelson said. “I love what you do, but I can’t fundamentally wrap my head around the jail being a better place to treat people who have an addiction.”
Aside from population growth, Wade noted in his presentation that the county is currently holding about 550 people with pending charges.
Henrico still holds some criminal defendants on cash bonds, unlike Richmond and Chesterfield County, which have stopped the practice and are either releasing defendants or keeping them if they’re considered dangerous, Wade said.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Feinmel, a member of the committee, said the county’s prosecutors currently ask that defendants either be released — sometimes with certain conditions — or held in jail before trial, but that judges still impose cash bonds in some cases.
Through the Recovery Roundtable’s first four meetings, the committee has also received presentations from the commonwealth attorney’s office, the county’s mental health department, and police and fire officials.
Nelson and Supervisor Tommy Branin, who is co-chairing the committee, have both said there has been little discussion at the committee’s first three meetings about potential solutions to alleviate overcrowding in the jails.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Nelson said he’s interested in having the county consider a no-cash bail policy and reforming the Henrico Drug Court.
While Nelson has made it clear that he does not support building a third jail to alleviate overcrowding, Wade said people who have committed violent or abhorrent crimes will still need to serve a sentence.
“I don’t think there’s any way you could keep them from coming to jail,” Wade said. “Unless someone does something about the change in the population, we’re going to need to build a new jail — whether you decide to do it or the federal courts decide to. We’re that overcrowded now.”
Wade added that that doesn’t mean those with serious convictions and substance abuse problems cannot be helped while they serve their sentence.
“This is a way to transition them out,” he said.