RD673 - Report on the Offender Population Forecasts (FY2024 to FY2029) – October 15, 2023

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.

The consensus forecasting process is structured through committees. 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 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.

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. The confined offender populations also have been impacted by recent policy changes, such as the decriminalization and then legalization of marijuana, the increase in the dollar value at which a larceny offense becomes a felony, and higher rates of earned sentence credits for some incarcerated individuals. Forecasting criminal justice populations in such circumstances is particularly challenging. By FY2023, most criminal justice leading indicators, such as arrests and juvenile intake cases, were increasing once again. This suggests that the declines seen during the pandemic may have reached their lowest point and begun to reverse. It remains unclear as to when, and to what extent, the confined offender populations will return to pre-pandemic levels or trends.

After careful examination of the available data and multiple forecast models, the Policy Committee selected an official forecast for each offender population. These are discussed below and in subsequent chapters of this report. The Secretary's Office will continue to monitor the offender populations throughout the year.

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 increased by 7.1 % overall between FY2016 and FY2019. In February 2020, the average population for the month was 19,418. As a result of declines in the number of arrests and state and local policies to address the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the local-responsible jail population fell by more than 5,000 individuals between February and June 2020. Overall, the average local-responsible jail population dropped by 7.4% in FY2020, 12.3% in FY2021, and 5.4% in FY2022, reaching 15,082 for the fiscal year. After four years of declines, the average local-responsible jail population grew by 2.3% in FY2023 to 15,434, largely attributable to increases in the awaiting trial population held in the jails. The forecast approved by the Policy Committee anticipates that the population will increase by 2.9% during the current fiscal year, resulting in an average population for FY2024 of 15,885. For the remaining years of the forecast, the Policy Committee expects a slower rate of growth. Under the approved forecast, an average population of 16,304 is projected for FY2029 (see table on page viii).

Adult State-Responsible Inmate Population. The largest of the forecasted populations, the state-responsible inmate population includes those incarcerated in state prisons, as well as state-responsible offenders housed in local and regional jails around the Commonwealth. This population gradually declined between October 2014 and February 2020, when it reached 36,535 inmates. Between February and June 2020, the state-responsible population fell by 2,750 inmates. 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. From mid-March to mid-May 2020, 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's courts. During that time, significantly fewer sentencing hearings were held, resulting in fewer offenders being sentenced to a prison term. Additionally, in response to the pandemic, the General Assembly granted the Director of the Department of Corrections the authority to release state-responsible inmates who were within one year of their expected release dates and who met certain release eligibility criteria. When this authority ended on June 30, 2021, 2,185 state-responsible inmates had been released earlier than they otherwise would have been. Finally, the General Assembly enacted legislation, effective July 1, 2022, to increase the rates at which most nonviolent felons may earn sentence credits to reduce the time served in jail or prison. The legislation applied retroactively, meaning that inmates in state facilities on July 1, 2022, had the higher rates of earned sentence credits applied to their entire term of confinement, and such inmates have been (or will be) released earlier than they would have been otherwise. As a result of retroactive application of the legislation, more than 2,000 state-responsible inmates were released in July and August 2022, ahead of their originally scheduled release date.

Based on preliminary figures, there were 27,412 state-responsible inmates as of June 30, 2023. The collective impact of recent legislation is difficult to quantify precisely, particularly if criminal justice decision makers (e.g., judges) begin to adjust their practices in response to the legislation. However, new commitments to the Department of Corrections increased in FY2023 for the first time in five years. Growth in new commitments is expected throughout the forecast horizon. After careful consideration, the Policy Committee adopted a forecast that calls for an increase in the state-responsible inmate population through the end of FY2029, with an average growth of 0.8% per year (see table on page viii).

Juvenile Correctional Center/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 correctional center/direct care population. The number of juveniles in this 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 FY201 7 and FY2019, the population began to level off, with the average population ranging from 335 to 338. The population declined significantly after February 2020. In FY2022, an average of 195 juveniles were in the state population. In FY2023, this population increased by 9.7% to 214 juveniles. The number of admissions to the committed juvenile population has dropped significantly since the onset of the pandemic; however, admissions are not projected to remain at such low levels during the forecast horizon. The Policy Committee selected a forecast that projects growth in the correctional center/direct care population through FY2029. Based on the approved forecast, this population is expected to increase by an average of 11.4% per year to an average of 397 in FY2029 (see table on page viii).

Juvenile Detention Center 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 has been declining for a number of years, reaching an average of 453 for FY2020. 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. The monthly population figures decreased significantly beginning in March 2020. By FY2022, the average detention center population reached 350 juveniles. After more than a decade of decline, this population grew significantly in FY2023 to an average of 468 (an increase of 33.7%). This uptick in the population is largely due to the substantial increase in juvenile intake cases at Court Services Units during FY2023. The Policy Committee anticipates that this population will continue to grow throughout the forecast horizon to an average of 767 in FY2029 (see table on page viii).