The Alexandria detention center population has been declining since 2011, here’s why

The William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center (Photo via City of Alexandria)

Over the last decade, Alexandria’s jail has been getting a little less crowded.

Since 2011, the average population at the William Truesdale Adult Detention has generally trended downward. Even pre-COVID there was an 18% population decrease since 2011, which only became more pronounced during the pandemic. In 2011, the average daily population in the Alexandria jail was 430. In 2019 it was 352. This year it’s 277.

Alexandria isn’t alone in this. Nationwide, the incarceration rate has been on the decline since peaking around 2008, according to Pew Research. In Fairfax County, the jail population has nearly halved sine 2010.

Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter said that, beyond the national trend, some of that decline comes from a local move away from incarceration as the primary response to conviction. Porter said at his office that the emphasis has been on mental health treatment and substance abuse court to decrease the number of people in jail for property crimes and non-violent offenses.

“I also think you have to give some credit, how much I don’t know, to the fact that in Alexandria we have tried to put more emphasis on addressing the root problems of crime,” Porter said. “The Alexandria Jail is known for the programs of people housed there, like GED and substance abuse programs to give them the tools to reduce recidivism.”

Porter said both state-wide prison populations and local jail populations have been gradually trending downward for inmates with non-violent charges or convictions. Overall crime has been declining as well, though Porter acknowledged that violent crime has been increasing.

“Over the past 12-24 months nationwide there has been an uptick in violent offenses,” Porter said, “and I think [locally] we’ve seen that we’ve had some increase in firearm incidents.”

Sheriff-elect Captain Sean Casey said some of the jail population decreases could be credited to legislative changes.

“The legislature has made legal changes over the years that deal with criminal justice reform,” Casey said. “There’s been bond reforms, so more people are getting bonds and getting out, rather than just sitting in jail. If more people are getting out on bond, that’s fewer people (who) are in here.”

Casey said those changes have reduced the number of inmates in jail for larceny or drug charges.

Porter is a little more skeptical that state-level changes have impacted the local jail population.

“At least locally, state changes haven’t had as much of an impact, because my office has historically been ahead of the curve on these issues,” Porter said. “For instance, even though larceny threshold remained $200 until 2020 or 2019, we had upped it internally and were not prosecuting thefts for less than that as felonies. Same thing with drug possession. Simple possession: we’ve always been really keen to get those cases diverted or treated as misdemeanors. But the reality for marijuana was no one was going to jail for simple possession. I don’t think statewide changes really have had much of an impact on the jail population locally.”

Casey said the jail was built in 1987 to hold 330 inmates, but that day-to-day operations in the jail aren’t hugely affected by population changes. Whether the jail is overcrowded or under its limit, Casey said two deputies are required to be in each cell block monitoring the inmates.

“It’s the same amount of manpower, the same amount of staff,” Casey said. “Nothing has really changed. Staff has probably said having 90 is a little more draining, but honestly, it really depends.”

While being under that 330 target isn’t very noticeable in the jail, Casey said in the 90s when the jail population was at its peak, overcrowding did make life more difficult in the jail.

“We don’t have the stressors of being cramped, which makes it easier to rehabilitate people,” Casey said. “It’s already difficult being in jail. It’s not built for people to be double-bunked, that was not the purpose, but because crime was so high back when it was built in the crack-cocaine epidemic, the jail became overcrowded. People were being put in the gym in the 90s.”

Still, Casey said a lower population doesn’t mean less manpower.

“A decrease might seem like less work, but it really isn’t, that’s how the jail is designed in a sense,” Casey said. The population is able to fluctuate. The whole idea is: as it goes up, we don’t need to have more staffing, but as it goes down we don’t need to take staffing away… I wish fewer people meant it was easier on us, but in reality, we’d have to drop much lower, like the 200 or 150 range, and even then I don’t know.”

The overall prison population hasn’t had as much of an impact on day-to-day operations as COVID, Casey said.

“We’ve changed the way the jail operates,” Casey said. “While we have fewer inmates, it’s never been more crowded because of COVID protocols and the quarantine units we’ve had to develop and establish. That’s really shrunk the jail, even though we have fewer inmates.”

Another change for the jail has been improvements in mental health work, though it makes some of the things like processing take much longer.

“If an inmate threatens to hurt themselves, we have mental health staff that works here, community services board works in jail,” Casey said. “If they determine that someone is acutely suicidal, we have to station a deputy in front of the cell to watch them non-stop. That used to not be the case. It’s a different accreditation standard, obviously, because mental health is taken so much more seriously and we understand it so much more to ensure people’s safety. So you can imagine, that’s very draining on the staff.”