Sheriff’s office suspends inmate labor program due to ‘critically low’ staffing

Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office vehicle (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A program that enlists Fairfax County Adult Detention Center inmates for litter pick-up, landscaping and other maintenance services will be put on hold.

The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office told county leaders on June 16 that it will temporarily suspend its Community Labor Force (CLF) effective Sept. 12 “due to critically low staffing levels,” according to the sheriff’s office.

“By doing this, the agency will be able to redirect staff to the core functions,” Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Andrea Ceisler said.

The office is currently down 72 sworn positions, or 14.5% of its staff, according to Ceisler.

The agency reported in April that it had a vacancy rate of nearly 15%, despite additional recruiting efforts. The fiscal year 2023 budget that the Board of Supervisors approved in May included salary increases for sheriff’s office staff and other public safety workers, starting on July 1.

According to the sheriff’s office, the CLF provides public services that would otherwise require county staff or contractors:

The CLF services over 300 county bus stops, shelters and park-and-rides by collecting the trash, doing light landscaping, removing graffiti and performing general maintenance when needed. The crews service many of the county’s stormwater management facilities, including over 1,300 dry ponds that temporarily hold and filter water in neighborhoods and at businesses. They also do landscaping, litter pick-up and emergency snow removal on public lands.

The force consists of work crews of up to five “well-screened” incarcerated individuals, each overseen by a deputy. Participants can reduce their jail time by volunteering for the program, which currently has 11 inmates.

Alternatives Needed for Sign Removals

Due to the CLF’s impending halt, the county board directed staff yesterday (Tuesday) to review potential options for handling the affected services — specifically an effort to remove signs from street curbs, medians and other areas in the public right of way.

The county has relied on the CLF to remove thousands of signs from 100 designated roads under a July 1, 2013 agreement between the sheriff’s office, Board of Supervisors, the Department of Code Compliance and the Virginia Department of Transportation. In 2016 alone, the group collected 23,264 signs, according to the sheriff’s office.

“The number of signs in our right of way today compared to what we used to deal with has made a significant difference not only in visibility, but in public safety, certainly for the environment and litter clean-ups,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “We cannot afford to have a gap, not even for one day in this service.”

Though the words “stunning” and “disappointing” were uttered, supervisors said the loss of the CLF could be an opportunity to explore more innovative approaches, perhaps even broadening the service to more roads.

One alternative could be an expansion of the county’s Operation Stream Shield initiative, which pays individuals experiencing homelessness to clean litter and remove invasive plants from parks and other county-owned properties.

The county could also use its own staff and vehicles to remove and dispose of signs. Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn suggested partnering with homeowner and community associations, noting that some like Reston Association already help mow medians.

While McKay said the CLF “will continue to exist doing other things,” the sheriff’s office told FFXnow that the force’s suspension will affect all services, not just sign removals, stating that it will be up to the board, county executive and the affected agencies “to figure out how to provide those services.”

“County leadership was given ample time to produce a solution to this matter,” said Lt. Col. J.J. Snyder, chief deputy of operations for the sheriff’s office. “We worked with them; this didn’t just happen overnight. As far as how it is being handled, that is for the county to answer, not the Sheriff’s Office.”

The county’s work release program is also still on hold. The sheriff’s office suspended it when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and said earlier this year that it doesn’t have enough staff to screen and monitor participants.

The county’s FY 2023 budget allocates 606 regular staff positions to the sheriff’s office, only one of them not full-time.