Good News, Bad News on Crime Trends

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by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Each year the state produces six-year forecasts of state and local criminal offender populations. These forecasts are ultimately adopted by an interagency, inter-disciplinary committee, chaired by the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

The process of producing the forecasts is fairly complicated and stretches over several months, involving numerous meetings. I will provide a more detailed description later when the final forecasts are agreed upon and released, which will be in October.

In the meantime, one of the main benefits of the process, aside from the forecasts themselves, is a comprehensive look at criminal justice trends in Virginia. This information was gathered from the research of analysts in several agencies and presented to the Offender Population Forecast Policy Committee in late August. The presentation went into a great detail and consisted of over 70 Power Point slides. Needless to say, I will limit this report to a few of the most salient charts. 

Reported Crime and Drug Arrests Overview

Reported Violent and Property Crime Rates

As shown above, the reported crime rates in Virginia continue to decline. This decline is the continuation of an even longer decline, stretching back to the 1990’s.

However, drug arrests were up and continue to exceed the national rates.

Drug Arrest Rates

The composition of the drug arrests is interesting and surprising (to me, at least). Marijuana arrests far and away exceed the arrests for other drugs. Furthermore, the increase in the marijuana arrest rate exceeds the increases for the other categories.

Breakdown of Drug Arrests, by Category

Some other details regarding illegal drug activity:

  • Arrests for illegal use of prescription opioids have decreased annually since 2012.
  • Arrests involving illicit opioids decreased slightly in 2018 from previous year.
  • Overdose deaths involving heroin/fentanyl increased from about 400 in 2015 to about 1,000 in 2017.
  • After decreasing from 2008 to 2015, the arrests for cocaine possession/sale began to rebound.
  • Arrests for possession/sale of methamphetamine increased sharply from 2015 to 2018.

Jail and Prison Populations

Most of the arrests and convictions for drug offenses are for misdemeanors, which are served in local jails. The increase in drug arrests has resulted in an increase in the local-responsible population in the state’s jails, as shown in the chart below. The population is being affected by not only the number of drug arrests, but also by a backlog at the Department of Forensic Science, which tests drug samples sent in by police departments. Due to staffing issues, the length of time it takes for DFS to complete a drug analysis has increased. Many persons charged with a drug offense must wait in jail until the drug analysis is completed before going to trial.

(The data line is jagged because of the decidedly seasonal nature of jail populations, which tend to decrease in the winter months and increase as the weather gets warmer. However, it is clear that the overall trend has been upward for the last three years.)

Finally, some more good news. The number of  state-responsible offenders (those offenders convicted of felonies and receiving a prison term of one year or more) continued its decrease from a high in 2014. However, this decrease will not result in any prison closings any time soon. The Department of Corrections has only approximately 30,000 beds in its facilities. The remaining 6,500 state responsible offenders must be housed in jails.

Summary:  The rate of reported serious violent and property crimes continues to decline.  However, the number of arrests for drug offenses continues to increase. The increased number of drug offenders, combined with a backlog in the Department of Forensic Science, has resulted in increased local and regional jail populations. Finally, the number of offenders eligible for incarceration in prison continues to decrease.

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8 responses to “Good News, Bad News on Crime Trends

  1. so we have less violent crime, but we’re imprisoning more for drug use?

    I’m curious about opioids. If we have an opioid epidemic but few arrests compared to other drugs?

    Also – I thought the conventional wisdom was that drug use was said to be tied to violent crime. If it’s not – then we’re just chucking folks in jail for possession of drugs? If violent crime is going down and drug arrests are up – what does that really mean?

    good article Dick !

    • It gets complicated. Drugs are often associated with violent or property crime. The data relates to the most serious offense. For example, the violent and property data are for reported crimes, so drugs could easily be associated with any of them, but, because the data is about reported crimes and not arrests, nothing is known about the association of drugs with the reported offenses. As for the drug arrests, these again are for the most serious offense; therefore, these arrests did not involve violent or serious property offenses. The drug data is for both kinds of offenses–possession and/or manufacturing/distribution. Therefore, a significant number of the arrests could have been for distribution and folks are sitting in jail until the analyses are completed.

      As for opioids, the deaths from overdoses have increased significantly. This data does not address the number of overdoses that did not result in death. I will see if I can find that data somewhere.

      • Dick hits some important points, a key one being drug use fuels many other crimes, including violent ones. I’m not sure that, even with total decriminalization of all drug-use offenses, from marijuana to heroin, would break the link.

        My instincts lead me to authorization of recreational marijuana, as least in small amounts. But, at the very same time, society continues to fight against the recreational use of tobacco (and now vaping) due to medical concerns. In light of this, does it make sense to move from smoking tobacco to smoking marijuana as being acceptable in society? And if so, why? Both the left and the right seem hypocritical on this issue. Is inhaling smoke from a burning leaf medically sound? If not, does it make sense to treat tobacco different from marijuana? I cannot answer my own question.

  2. If we want to reduce the prison population, it sounds like one good way would be to increase funding for the Department of Forensic Science so we can reduce the backlog of drug-sample testing. It makes no sense to keep potentially innocent people in prison while the department works through the backlog.

    The increase in marijuana arrests is still a mystery given the general relaxation of attitudes towards marijuana possession. You’d think the Policy Committee would do some in-depth research on that particular topic.

    • The Governor’s introduced budget last winter included an additional $3.3 million for DFS to hire more staff scientists and the GA agreed. After hiring someone, it takes about a year to train them. In addition, DFS requires its analysts to put in some overtime in order to address the increased workload. Recent presentations by the DFS director indicate that the backlog is being reduced.

      Even with additional staff, DFS frequently has vacancies. The agency has a good reputation in the forensic community. As a result, federal and private agencies are frequently poaching DFS staff after they get trained and get some experience.

      As for the increase in marijuana arrests, I have also been somewhat mystified for the same reason expressed by Jim. The Policy Committee includes representatives of the State Police and local law enforcement, as well as Commonwealth’s attorneys. When I was involve in the forecast process, I would ask the law enforcement representatives on the Policy Committee if they had any explanation for the increase in marijuana arrests. I never got a satisfactory answer.

  3. Our drug laws are just messed up and are fundamentally based on old ideas of the govt “protecting” citizens from the supposed “bad” effects of drugs such that we put people in prison over marijuana while spending billions, trillions of dollars towards the “bad” effects of cigarettes and alcohol and treat victims of Oxycontin totally different than we do those on cocaine

    We talk and talk and talk about “criminal justice reform” but the stats show that we’re still putting more people in jail for pot use than all the other more serious drugs combined – at enormous cost to law enforcement, prisons, courts – AND the individuals who are essentially ruined economically from the taint of having a criminal record – for something that pales in comparison to other much more serious drugs.

    We, no more can “stop” people smoking pot than we can “stop” people smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol and we learned long ago that we cannot “stop” alcohol and now vaping….

    The stats provided by Dick show the toll.. as well as reveal the hypocrisy of the politico talk about “reform” and the reality.

  4. Why is Richmond such a murderous place? Every year Richmond seems to make the Top 20 or Top 25 murder cities list. From this article it sounds like it’s worse so far this year than last.

  5. I have seen data that shows that the crime rates in Virginia and Fairfax County have increased for prostitution and pornography.

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