Fairfax County’s approach to criminal justice is quite different from when public defender Bryan Kennedy started his job here a decade ago.

In 2010, the county housed 1,207 people in its jail. That population has been nearly halved, down to 667 people in 2020, according to 2020 Census data compiled by The Marshall Project.

Going back further, the county’s inmate population was 3,749 people in 2000. But the changes from 2000-2010 involved the 2001 closure of the Lorton Reformatory, which housed over 2,800 people as of Dec. 31, 1999 and had its inmates moved to other facilities across Virginia and the federal prison system.

More recently, policy and cultural changes have dramatically altered the county’s judicial system, according to Kennedy, who also belongs to the criminal justice reform group Justice Forward Virginia.

“Ten years ago judges sentenced people to jail much more frequently on low level charges (both misdemeanors and felonies), including misdemeanors like possession of marijuana and driving on a suspended license,” Kennedy said in an email. “People were also held pretrial and held on secured bonds (cash bonds) that they could not afford much more frequently.”

After taking office in 2020 as one of three new progressive prosecutors in Northern Virginia, current Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano ended the use of cash bail and stopped prosecuting simple marijuana possession cases prior to the state’s legalization, though future reform efforts could be challenged by Virginia’s incoming Republican administration.

Kennedy told FFXnow that the judicial system is now more receptive to alternatives to incarceration, as judges and prosecutors feel more comfortable not placing people in jail, because those individuals are getting more services outside of jail.

County Adopts Diversion Framework

One possible driving force behind the decline in Fairfax County’s incarcerated population in the last decade is its Diversion First policy, which began in 2016 after Natasha McKenna’s death at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center in February 2015.

The initiative aims to reduce the incarceration of people with mental health and substance use issues, as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities, by directing those arrested for nonviolent offenses to services instead of jail, which the county says is less costly. Read More

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