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A look at how reforms to pretrial detention are working in Virginia

Last year, Virginia made a significant reform that prevented defendants from being automatically held in detention.

Back in the tough-on-crime 90's, lawmakers started passing a series of bills that made it much more likely that your local jail would automatically hold defendants awaiting trial. All that pretrial detention for certain serious offenses added up, costing taxpayers $55 per inmate per day.

Laura Goren at the Commonwealth Institute says that the one-size-fits all approach didn't work.

"When you are holding people for longer than is necessary before they have even been tried or convicted of anything; that has costs to all of us," Goren says.

Last year, lawmakers took action to reject that approach and move toward a system where judges now consider the individual circumstances in a case. When Republicans won control of the House of Delegates this year, they tried unsuccessfully to roll back that reform. Wyatt Rolla at the Legal Aid Justice Center says the reform is working.

"Not just for that person who is held but for their family members if they have children whose parents are being detained pretrial, if they have elders at home who they are caretakers for, these people may lose their job, they may lose their housing," Rolla explains.

The fiscal impact statement on the attempt to roll back the reform revealed some interesting numbers about how the new system is working. In the first six months after the presumptions against bail were repealed, more than 8,000 people would have had a presumption against bail triggered. That means almost 17,000 people a year are now free from automatic pretrial detention.

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.