Fairfax County is changing its criminal justice system and will allow some alleged criminals to remain free while they wait for trial, instead of waiting in jail, officials say.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano says eliminating jail sentences for some people awaiting trial will make the criminal justice system more equitable.
"I feel very confident that the values we're fighting for are not only Fairfax County values, but are values that are broadly shared throughout Virginia," Descano said.
Virginia law says people accused of misdemeanors and felonies can be sentenced to jail to wait for their trial unless they pay a cash bond.
The cash bond often ranges between a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
Descano will begin ordering his assistant prosecutors to avoid cash bails for every single offender.
Instead of offering bail, that person will be free until their trial, unless they are considered a threat to the community or a flight risk. If deemed a risk, that person would still be sentenced to pre-trial jail.
"Under a cash bail system, whether a person sleeps at home or in a cell can be determined solely by how much money they have," Descano said. "Even a small cash bail amount has the potential to wreak havoc."
"Unfortunately that inequity has been felt acutely by Black and brown members of our community," Descano said.
The Fairfax Fraternal Order of Police disagrees, saying, "We would think that the possibility of being remanded to custody of a Sheriff’s Office would deter suspects from committing criminal acts on community members and keep society a safer place."
Descano says research shows holding someone in jail because they can't afford bail is actually worse for the community.
"It destabilizes that person's life, and they'll lose their job, they'll lose their house, potentially the custody of their kids," Descano said.
Their risk of recidivism also increases dramatically and stays high for years after even just a few days in pre-trial jail, Descano says.
This policy isn't unique to the area.
Several other counties recently ended cash bails too – all claiming the move will make the criminal justice system more balanced for everyone.
Descano says he and other commonwealth's attorneys are working with legislators to remove cash bails entirely from the state code. He anticipates that legislation will be introduced in the next General Assembly session.