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Census Data Shows Incarceration Trending Down

In the last decade, the number of people incarcerated in Virginia has dropped about 12 percent. That's according to Census numbers compiled by the Marshall Project.

Weihua Li at the Marshall Project says the numbers are declining all over the country. "Maybe what we are seeing here really is the pandemic is slowing down the criminal justice system, leaving fewer people in the system. But certainly there's the fact of decarceration across the country, even before the pandemic."

Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne says part of what's going on here is COVID-19 protocol to keep people safe. But he says there's also an important long-term trend, a reaction to how people thought about crime and punishment in the 90s. "Everybody got tough on crime, and then eventually we started backing off of that. And so over the years, we've seen a steady effort to not have this sort of zero-tolerance and maximum sentencing initiatives. And so it's starting to trend the other way, which ultimately results in fewer people incarcerated."

The real test will be what happens in the next decade. When the 2030 Census happens, will the legalization of marijuana and other criminal justice reforms lead to a reduction of mass incarceration? Or will the pendulum swing back in the other direction?

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.