“Innocent until proven guilty.” It’s a pinnacle of our legal system here in the United States: if you are arrested and charged with a crime, you’re considered legally innocent unless and until the State can prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The reality one experiences as someone awaiting trial, again, someone who is legally innocent, is entirely dependent upon that person’s ability to post bail. As a mental exercise, let’s consider two different criminal defendants: someone who is accused of petty shoplifting, perhaps to feed their family, and a wealthy person accused of a violent sexual assault. One of these people will be held in jail pre-trial, and it’s not the person you may expect. In the US criminal system, where “speedy and public” trials can take years to begin due to our overwhelmed courts, a wealthy defendant can buy their freedom while impoverished people are forcibly caged awaiting trial. The United States is one of only two countries in the world to maintain our regressive cash bail system, skyrocketing our problems of mass incarceration into the stratosphere by punitively criminalizing the poor.
Each day, in every locality in the country, small battles are playing out to better effectuate community safety without promoting violence and incarceration by the state. This is even true in Charlottesville, where the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail Authority has proposed a $73 million expansion of the Albemarle County Jail, with the budget proposal approved by the City Council in summer 2022. Jail officials claim the renovations and expansion will in no way add capacity for more people to be detained there, but rather improve existing conditions; however, this should be taken with a grain of salt. The renovations will address certain community concerns, leaving others completely disregarded: in response to rising levels of homelessness and mental health crises, the city has decided to fund the construction of more “mental health units” within the jail, a decision that has been met with much scrutiny by criminal justice reform activists and community members alike. See, in lieu of dedicating at least a portion of the $73 million being poured into the jail, the city could enact and fund measures that actually improve mental health and homelessness crises in the Charlottesville community. With that money, Charlottesville could put efforts into housing people experiencing homelessness, improving housing affordability, and investing in genuine mental health treatment and services that don’t require incarceration. Superintendent Kumer said this about the renovations: “They need to walk out of here healthier than they walked in here. Mentally, physically, emotionally. They need to walk out of here less likely to commit crimes.” Let’s investigate that statement. Will caging a person, removing them from their job and home, and forcing them to exist in a highly regimented, violent carceral environment improve their health? Will caging someone make them less likely to commit a crime? The data, and common sense, say no. When someone with mental illness is incarcerated for a petty offense, they’ll now be placed in one of the “mental health” units, aimed at ‘reducing stimulation’ for those experiencing a mental health crisis or reacclimating to psychiatric medication. How will a ‘reduced stimulation’ unit– in other words, a quieter and more isolated space– help with reintegration into the community? Will any programs be put into place to help folks once they’re released, to prevent their return?
The answer to those questions is a resounding no. In fact, despite what Kumer may say, the money isn’t actually going towards any initiatives that will genuinely prevent recidivism. No efforts are being made to reduce the extreme financial burden faced by those detained while in the jail and post-release, despite the fact that jail officials agree that expenses for the incarcerated and their families are a major cause of financial hardship and contribute to recidivism following release. Families are price-gouged for the opportunity to communicate over the phone to incarcerated loved ones, or are strapped from donating money to their relative’s commissary so they can afford edible food and necessary toiletries, like soap and menstrual products. The jail profits from the incarceration of these individuals not only through taxpayer dollars, but also through telecommunication and commissary, where products are typically priced at twice their value on the outside. Those in jail, if given one of the limited work opportunities, are paid at a rate between 20-45 cents an hour, meaning their families are burdened with this financial strain. In 2021, a state report found that the Albemarle Regional Jail had the second-highest revenue from commissary and telecommunications commissions in the entire commonwealth, at $1.56 million. The jail will continue to receive this revenue from those it cages, and has announced no plans to improve these clear barriers to improving recidivism. When someone is jailed pre-trial, they are removed from society: many lose their jobs, their homes, and sometimes even custody of their children simply because they cannot afford to post bail. When they are released, they are subject to a litany of fines and fees they must pay to the state as a result of their detention. Officials at the Albemarle Jail will never prove to the public that they take the issue of recidivism seriously until efforts are made to destroy the existence of a two-tiered justice system that disproportionately criminalizes and punishes the poor.
It is a deeply embarrassing state of affairs for the City of Charlottesville. Against the backdrop of a community in pain, the city has elected to further fund detention and criminalization instead of investing in its constituents. A crisis of prioritization exists when we are pouring tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into structures to further detain, humiliate, and harm poor members of the community. To get involved with those in Charlottesville fighting against this decision, visit the link below and learn more about The People’s Coalition within the Legal Aid Justice Center of Charlottesville to stop the expansion of the Albemarle Jail.
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.