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Is Richmond's New Jail Set Up to Fail?

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Richmond, you will get your new jail. But will the city’s efforts to prevent overcrowding there actually work?

It’s the most pressing question still dogging the $134.6 million project, following the state Board of Corrections’ unanimous approval of the city’s amended construction plan last week.

The city says not to worry. Two additional housing pods included in the revised plan will add as many as 300 beds to the new 1,032 bed facility. In addition, city officials hope jail diversion and alternative sentencing programs will help decrease the jail’s average daily population by more than 500 inmates by 2014.

But there’s no guarantee that the jail won’t be overcrowded from the moment its doors are opened, Board of Corrections member Cynthia Alksne says. “The city has a pretty aggressive plan to reduce the population through diversion programs,” she says. “But nobody truly knows if it can actually succeed.”

Primarily, the Richmond Community Criminal Justice Board’s biennial plan carves out $1.7 million in city funds to assist in reducing by 250 the number of inmates with mental illnesses or substance-abuse problems. The plan includes come moving 250 low-risk, nonviolent offenders out of the jail.

The existing, over-capacity jail houses as many as 1,500 inmates per day. With those new programs implemented, that number will decrease to as few as 953 by 2014, according to the city’s projections.

That’s if the programs work. Efforts to reduce the jail population have been in place for at least two years. Since 2009 the city began receiving $50,000 in yearly grants from the state for crisis intervention, which aims to identify criminal offenders with mental illness and developmental disabilities and find alternatives to incarceration. In October 2010, the city also received $249,360 to implement an alternative sentencing program for 160 nonviolent offenders.

Those programs have yet to significantly reduce the jail population. For the last three years, from 2009 to 2011, the average daily population has hovered around 1,500, the city reported to the state.

So can similar, expanded programs be expected to reduce the jail population by more than 500 in less than two years? Only time will tell, City Councilman Bruce Tyler says. “It’s pure speculation as to whether these programs will work,” he says, adding that their success is at least partly dependent on how and if judges use them.

If the programs fail to reduce the jail population, that could mean that the cells inside the new jail will be double-bunked, Tyler says — “at which point we’re right back to where we started.”

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