RD488 - Report on the Offender Population Forecasts (FY2021 to FY2026) – October 2020

Executive Summary:

Forecasts of persons confined in state and local correctional facilities are essential for criminal justice budgeting and planning in Virginia. The forecasts are typically used to estimate operating expenses and future capital needs and to assess the impact of current and proposed criminal justice policies. The Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security oversees the forecasting process and, as required by the Appropriation Act, presents updated forecasts annually to the Governor and the Chairmen/Chairwomen of the House Appropriations Committee, the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, the House Courts of Justice Committee, and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

To produce the offender forecasts, the Secretary’s Office utilizes an approach known as “consensus forecasting." First implemented in Virginia in the late 1980s, consensus forecasting is an open, participative approach that brings together policy makers, administrators, and technical experts from many state agencies across all branches of state government. The objective is to ensure that key policy makers and administrators in the criminal justice system have input into the forecast. Moreover, the process is intended to promote general understanding of the forecast and the assumptions that drive it.

Since 2006, the consensus forecasting process has involved three committees or work groups: the Technical Advisory Committee, the Secretary’s Work Group, and the Policy Committee. The Technical Advisory Committee is composed of experts in statistical and quantitative methods from several agencies. Analysts from particular agencies are tasked with developing offender forecasts. Select forecasts are recommended by the Technical Advisory Committee for consideration by the Secretary’s Work Group. Work Group members include deputy directors and senior managers of criminal justice and budget agencies, as well as staff of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees. Normally meeting throughout the development of the forecasts, the Work Group provides guidance to the Technical Advisory Committee, discusses detailed aspects of the projections, and directs technical staff to provide additional data needed for decision making. After thorough evaluation of each forecast, the Work Group makes recommendations to the Secretary’s Policy Committee. Led by the Secretary, the Policy Committee reviews the various forecasts and selects the official forecast for each population. This Committee also considers the effects of emerging trends or recent policy changes and makes adjustments to the forecasts as it deems appropriate. The Policy Committee is made up of agency directors, members of the General Assembly, and top-level officials from Virginia’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Each year, at least one prosecutor, sheriff, police chief, and jail administrator are invited to serve on the Policy Committee to represent their respective associations. Through the consensus process, a forecast is produced and approved for each of the four major offender populations.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security opted to abbreviate the forecasting process for 2020, while still maintaining a consensus approach. The Secretary directed the Technical Advisory Committee to examine criminal justice trends in the Commonwealth and present detailed trend information directly to the Policy Committee. The Policy Committee held a virtual meeting on September 1, 2020. As a result of COVID-19 and response policies implemented specifically to reduce the spread of the virus, Virginia experienced dramatic reductions in the confined offender populations beginning in March 2020, and, in September, it remained unclear as to when, and to what extent, the populations would return to pre-pandemic levels or trends. The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the confined populations may not yet be known. Forecasting criminal justice populations in such circumstances would be particularly challenging. The Policy Committee recognized that it would be unlikely to have a high degree of confidence in any statistical projections produced this year.

After much discussion, Policy Committee members developed a consensus regarding the following: 1) the confined offender populations would not stay at the exceptionally low levels seen in March-August 2020, 2) the forecasts adopted in 2019 should be retained and used for the 2020 forecasting cycle, and 3) adjustments should be made for the first year of the forecast horizon (FY2021) based on the best available data. For a complete discussion of the methodologies used to develop the forecasts adopted in 2019, approved for continued use by the 2020 Policy Committee, see Appendix C, which contains a complete copy of the 2019 report. The approved forecast for each population is summarized below.

Adult Local-Responsible Jail Population. The local-responsible jail population is defined as the number of persons confined in local and regional jails across the Commonwealth, excluding state and federal inmates and ordinance violators. The local-responsible jail population has fluctuated over the last decade. Between FY2010 and FY2014, the local-responsible jail population grew by an average of 1.2% annually, to 19,407 individuals. The population then decreased in both FY2015 and FY2016, when the population fell to an average of 18,335. The trend reversed again and, with growth in both FY2017 and FY2018, the population climbed to 19,721. The population declined slightly in FY2019 and this modest downward trend continued into the first half of FY2020. By February 2020, the average population for the month was 19,439. The local-responsible jail population fell by nearly 5,200 individuals between February and June 2020, as a result of COVID-19 and the introduction of state and local policies to address the virus. Based on preliminary figures, the local-responsible jail population averaged 14,222 in June 2020. The forecast approved by the Policy Committee projects the population to grow during the remainder of the fiscal year, resulting in an average population for FY2021 of 18,299. For the remaining years of the forecast, the Policy Committee retained the forecast adopted in 2019, which anticipates the local-responsible jail population will remain level from FY2022 through FY2026, with an average population of 19,469 in the final year of the forecast horizon (see table on page viii of the report).

Adult State-Responsible Inmate Population. The largest of the forecasted populations, the state-responsible inmate population includes offenders incarcerated in state prisons, as well as state-responsible offenders housed in local and regional jails around the Commonwealth. Beginning in January 2012, the state-responsible population grew from 37,608 to 39,286 in October 2014. However, the population began to gradually decline thereafter, reaching 36,504 in February 2020. Between February and June 2020, the state-responsible population fell by nearly 2,800 inmates. According to preliminary figures, the number of state-responsible inmates was 33,705 as of June 30, 2020. This sudden, dramatic decrease occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and policies put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. For example, from mid-March to mid-May, an emergency order issued by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia suspended all non-essential and non-emergency proceedings in the state courts. During that time, significantly fewer sentencing hearings were held, resulting fewer offenders being sentenced to a prison term. Based on the approved forecast, the population is expected to rebound to 35,987 by the end of FY2021. For the years after FY2021, the Policy Committee approved the continued use of the forecast adopted in 2019. Under that forecast scenario, the state-responsible inmate population is projected to reach 37,723 offenders by the end of FY2026 (see table on page viii of the report). As required by Appropriation language, the forecast has been disaggregated to identify the number of probation violators within the overall population who may be appropriate for punishment via alternative sanctions. By the end of FY2026, it is projected that the state-responsible population will include 2,586 technical probation violators (i.e., offenders who violated the rules of probation but have not been convicted of a new crime).(*1)

Juvenile Direct Care Population. Juvenile offenders committed to the state are held in facilities operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) or they are placed in re-entry, community placement, or other programs; collectively, these make up DJJ’s total direct care population. The number of juveniles in the direct care population has been falling overall since FY2000. Statutory changes, use of validated risk assessment instruments, and continued decline in the number of juvenile intake cases at Court Services Units have contributed to the long-term downward trend. Between FY2017 and FY2019, the direct care population began to level off, with the average population ranging from 335 to 338 during these years. As with the adult confined populations, the juvenile direct care population declined significantly after February 2020, dropping from 344 to 262 by June 2020. Based on the approved forecast, this population will increase over the remaining months of the fiscal year such that the average population for FY2021 is projected to be 340 juveniles. Beginning in FY2022, this population is expected to increase slightly each year. Based on the forecast adopted in 2019 and approved for continued use for the remaining years of the forecast horizon, the average population is projected to be 359 juveniles in FY2026 (see table on page viii of the report).

Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) Population. Juveniles held in local or commission-operated juvenile detention centers around the Commonwealth make up the juvenile local-responsible population. The detention center population declined from an average of 757 in FY2011 to an average of 521 in FY2019. Lower numbers of intakes at Court Services Units and procedures to reduce detention of low-risk juveniles have been important factors in the downward trend. Historically, the majority of the detention center population has been comprised of juveniles in pre-dispositional status (pending adjudication, disposition, or placement). While the overall average population for FY2020 was 452, the monthly population figures decreased significantly between February and June 2020 (from 498 to 344 juveniles). For this population, the Policy Committee opted to continue using the forecast adopted in 2019 without an adjustment for FY2021. Thus, the average detention center population is projected to remain at 457 juveniles through the forecast horizon (see table on page viii of the report).
(*1) The proportion of Technical Probation Violators declines as criminal histories are updated with new conviction information; as such, these Technical Probation Violator Forecasts should be considered maximums and are expected to decline by more than one-third as additional conviction information is received.