Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guest Post: A "Crime Surge" In The 'Burg?

If we expand it, we'll be sure to fill it.
Three local hearings will be held over the next week about how (or whether) to expand the already crowded jail built in Harrisonburg only two decades ago. The following article by local journalist and blogger Andrew Jenner  may help explain why we are needing ever more jail space in our city, designated the nation's 9th safest. We hope many will turn out for these listening sessions

Criminal Cases In Circuit Court Have Risen 22 Percent In Five Years. Has The Friendly City Gotten That Much Less Friendly?    

In 2008, a total of 2,239 criminal cases were certified to Rockingham County Circuit Court, where felonies in Harrisonburg or Rockingham County are tried. In 2009, that total rose slightly to 2,309. These cases represent individual charges (mostly felonies, with some exception), meaning a single defendant facing, say, five charges accounts for five cases.

Except for 2010, this number has continued to rise, and by 2012, reached 2,736. That’s an eyebrow-raising 22 percent increase over the 2008 total, and enough to make Old South High start asking around about what this means – 22 percent more crime? 22 percent more prosecution? Some combination of the two? Something else entirely?

“There’s a lot of stuff [going on] out there,” said Chaz Evans-Haywood, clerk of the circuit court. “[Those numbers] also tell me somebody must be working really hard to get the bad guys off the street.”

According to Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst, the explanation for this increase has everything to do with more bad guys and more hard work to get them off the street. She told Old South High that abuse of prescription drugs (oxycodone and fentanyl are two of the biggies) accounts for the majority of the recent increase in criminal cases in circuit court. Garst said that a combination of more people abusing drugs and more aggressive law enforcement and prosecution have contributed to the spike in court cases. (Her office doesn’t track cases by the type of crime, however, and couldn’t provide figures quantifying a recent increase in drug cases).

Property crimes like larceny and embezzlement have also risen over this period, she added, likely due to economic trouble.

“We’ve had people become really, really desperate,” Garst said.

Karen Thomas, president of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, which works to reduce crime and strengthen community in that part of town, generally concurred with Garst’s assessment. A lack of good jobs for young people, she said, has pushed more of them to use and deal drugs – something that her association works hard to prevent.

Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, however, was hesitant to conclude that crime has increased as significantly as the number of criminal cases in circuit court might suggest.

“I don’t think that there’s one thing you can really point to,” Hutcheson said, of the increase.

As much as anything, Hutchison suggested, the increasing population of the city and county might be behind the increase. At best, though, that seems like a partial explanation. In 2008, the combined city-county population was estimated at 121,430; in 2012, that figure rose to 128,413, or a little less than 6 percent.

And Aaron Cook, a criminal defense attorney who previously worked in the prosecutor’s office, disagreed entirely with the idea that crime has been increasing at the same rate as the number of criminal cases in circuit court. He pointed out that state funding formulas for prosecutors’ offices are partially based on the number of felony defendants in circuit court, giving the Commonwealth’s Attorney some incentive to bring as many cases as possible. (The state agency that calculates this funding will count the same person as different “felony defendants” for funding purposes if charges are filed against that person on different dates.)

Practically speaking, Cook said, this can mean prosecutors might file as many charges as possible against a specific defendant with the intention of offering a plea deal on just a fraction of those charges after they’ve all been filed as cases in circuit court.

Regardless, he and several colleagues told Old South High that they don’t believe crime has risen as the circuit court statistics might suggest.

“Crime has not increased [by 22 percent],” said Cook. “This is still an extremely safe place to live.”
If nothing else, that’s something that both he and Garst agree on – and a reality reflected in a recent study that identified Harrisonburg as the ninth-safest city in the entire country.

Despite the increasing drug and property crimes that Garst says she’s seen over the past several years, she believes the ninth-safest city ranking is right on the money.

“I focus on a lot of the negatives, because that’s what I see [every day],” she said.

And the 22 percent increase in criminal cases down on Court Square? That’s a simple, numerical fact spit out by the computers at the courthouse. What it actually means, though, appears to depend on who you ask.

For more recent posts on the rapid increase in our local jail population go to Jenner's blog

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Please attend one of these local hearings:
  • August 7, from 6pm-8pm at Spotswood High School, 368 Blazer Drive, Penn Laird;
  • August 11, from 7pm-9pm in Harrisonburg City Council Chambers, 409 S. Main St.
  • August 14, from 6pm-8pm at Turner Ashby High School, 800 N. Main St., Bridgewater.
(Any ideas posted on Be Heard Harrisonburg before the August 14 hearing will be shared with the committee.)
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