With the emergence of COVID-19 over the past several months, various systems of criminal justice in West Virginia have been forced to adjust their practices in order to reduce the spread of the disease. Previous analysis has shown a reduction in the prison and jail system populations in West Virginia. New evidence out of Charleston, West Virginia shows that there has been a large reduction in arrest rates as well.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the ACLU of West Virginia, the city of Charleston provided the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy with the city’s arrest records from March and April of 2019 and 2020.
The arrest records show a substantial reduction in arrests in March and April of 2020 compared to 2019. The city of Charleston’s police made 359 arrests in March and April of 2020, down from 863 from the same months in 2019, a decline of 58 percent.
While arrests have gone down for most crimes, certain petty crimes have seen the largest reductions. These include possession of a controlled substance that is not marijuana (82 percent reduction), obstructing an officer (81 percent reduction), and capias violations or a failure to appear for a civil warrant (79 percent reduction). Large arrest reductions were also found in possession of marijuana (75 percent) and open container violations (73 percent).
The exact cause of the reductions is unclear due to the extenuating circumstances of the current pandemic. Two likely factors could be a change in police policy due to the pandemic or a reduction in people being on the streets leading to lower visibility of crime. The reduction across the board is so significant that it could easily be both.
While arrests are down, the distribution of methods for holding those who are arrested has remained largely the same. In 2019 people who were arrested were sent to jail 45.7 percent of the time, compared to 42.6 percent in 2020. A summons (legal document ordering someone to appear in court at on a certain date) were ordered 35.2 percent of the time in 2019 and compared to 41.5 percent in 2020. Personal recognizance bonds (an order to return to court or be forced to pay the bond if you fail) reduced slightly from 16.8 percent in 2019 to 13.9 percent in 2020. Finally, arrestees sent to detention center holding for juveniles fell from 1.2 percent in 2019 to 0.3 percent in 2020.
This uniformity of holding methods year to year indicates that prosecutors are likely treating crimes in 2019 and 2020 similarly regardless of the need to keep jail occupation low due to the coronavirus pandemic. While there has been a reduction in jail populations due to a number of factors, the choice by prosecutors to not reduce the proportion of people sent to jail when arrested could result in further spread of COVID-19.
It is worth noting that all of this data was for March and April so it was prior to the Governor Jim Justice’s shift from a “Stay at Home Order” to a “Safer at Home Order” on May 4th. It is unclear exactly how arrest numbers will change as West Virginia and Charleston shift out of the coronavirus lockdown. What is clear is that during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic Charleston saw a substantial reduction in arrests.
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