Category Archives: Children and families

Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline


The case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an 11-year-old autistic child in Lynchburg schools, started with kicking a trash can and ended with a charge of felonious assault, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

by James A. Bacon

Amid growing national concerns about “mass incarceration,” particularly of African-Americans, a Center for Public Integrity study found in August that Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a higher rate than schools in any other state in the country — and three times the national average. The report highlighted the case of an autistic, 11-year-old African-American student in a Lynchburg school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who, in a series of incidents that started with kicking a trash can, wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States puts too many people into jail and prison, and that there has to be a better way to deal with minor crimes and misdemeanors.  There is less agreement about what that “better way” might be.

Fortunately, the federal system of the U.S. government creates a “laboratory for democracy” that allows lots of experiments at the state and local level. One such experiment for reducing the school-to-prison pipeline will take place in the City of Richmond when schools resume next year after the Christmas break. A new program called LIFE, reports Louis Llovio with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will divert students into an after-school program designed to “get them the skills needed to make better decisions.”

Richmond police arrested 149 students last year; of those arrests, 59 were for disorderly conduct for such behaviors as not sitting down in class or cussing at a teacher. In the hope of plugging the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” LIFE will be open to students committing minor offenses. Students will attend nine 90-minute sessions covering topics such as conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, gangs and respect for self and others. Parents are expected to attend three of the nine classes.

Diversion programs have a mixed record, according to Llovio’s reporting — some research finds that they lead to increased recidivism. But program organizers continue to tweak them in the hope of improving outcomes, so it’s possible that the Richmond program will enjoy better results. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that 13 to 14 hours in an after-school program can do much to change a student’s behavior by the time he’s reached middle school or high school. But I’m willing to entertain the notion that if participants are chosen based on a teacher’s appraisal of their potential willingness to change, and if parents participate as well, the program might rescue a few kids from jail.

The key is to set goals and metrics by which to measure those goals. If results don’t improve, adjust the program. If they still don’t improve, shut it down.

Bacon’s bottom line. Two things worry me. First, one of the few clear public policy successes of the past two decades has been so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on seemingly minor offenses like vandalism in order to avert an escalation into major crimes. The thrust of the movement to roll back “mass incarceration” seems to go against the broken-windows philosophy. We need to be vigilant against a retrogression to the widespread public disorder of the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, we must remember the silent victims of school disorder — the majority of students whose education is disrupted by the behavior of a noisy, troublesome minority. The hand-wringing over “mass incarceration” paints criminals as the victims while ignoring the plight of their victims. While it’s true that the jailed and imprisoned population is disproportionately African-American, let us not forget that the vast majority of their victims are African-American. Affluent white Virginians living safely in their leafy suburbs have little to fear from the consequences of social experiments gone awry. Poor African-Americans have the most to lose.

So, let’s try experiments to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, but let’s monitor them very closely and make sure they accomplish what we expect of them.

Time to Reform Juvenile Justice

by Chris Braunlich

If the evidence showed that taking a particular medication actually made the disease worse, would you keep on taking it?

Of course not.

But a recent paper, Juvenile Justice Reform, co-issued by Justice Fellowship, Right On Crime, and the Thomas Jefferson Institute makes the case that, when it comes to Virginia’s juvenile justice system, that’s been exactly the prescription for too many years.

In fact, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) admits in its latest guidelines that “current policies and practices are not effective in preparing juveniles to be successful citizens in the community.”

According to DJJ, “after controlling for offense and risk and protective factors … the probability of a juvenile’s re-arrest increases by 32.7 percent for every additional year” that a young person remains incarcerated in the Commonwealth.

In short, the longer someone stays in the system, the more likely they are to return to the system. Some might argue that, after all, these are hardened criminal youth who deserve to be locked away.

But are they? More than 11 percent of youthful prisoners are there on a misdemeanor offense, and more than a third are incarcerated on non-person felonies – crimes that didn’t include confrontations with another person. One of the largest such crimes is larceny.

In fact, more youths were jailed in Virginia on a primary conviction of larceny than any other offense. And while that may sound a bit frightening, consider the fact that Virginia has the lowest threshold in the nation for felony larceny: $200.

That $200 threshold hasn’t changed since 1980, with the result that theft of a ubiquitous cell phone or a college textbook now meets the definition of felony larceny, with a much higher potential prison sentence. If the definition had simply kept pace with inflation, that threshold would be $565 today. Put another way: That $200 had purchasing power of $63.29 in 1980. Is that really our idea of felony larceny and a community risk?

The result is that youths are jailed in Virginia for crimes that would be misdemeanors in every other state, driving up our incarceration rates and costs.

More importantly: Non-violent youths who may have simply made a mistake are put in a prison environment with more hardened criminals. Removed from their family (often hundreds of miles away) and other community support networks like their local church, they are more likely to turn to the internal “support networks” of a juvenile prison – and that frequently leads to a worsening turn, not a better one. One result: Virginia’s rearrest rate three years after release from juvenile correctional centers is 80 percent, even while recidivism rates in several other states is declining.

This process is expensive. Virginia’s two existing juvenile correctional centers cost $28-35 million each, or about $150,000 per youth per year. In other states, the daily cost of incarcerating a single youth is about $240; in Virginia, the cost soars to more than $400.

To its credit, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has already begun instituting reforms – closing most of the big facilities and opening wings in their remaining facilities with a high premium on workers trained in both security and rehabilitation.

But the paper issued by three center-right organizations suggests going the extra mile by decentralizing the juvenile justice system even further. A youth incarcerated in a prison that may be up to five hours away from their community is cut off from the resources most likely to aid him in rehabilitation and a return to a law-abiding life. Parental communication may be severed for disciplinary reasons, and home-based faith institutions are unable work early-on to help transition youth into jobs, school, and a better life. Continue reading

Highland View: a Poor School that Works

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

by James A. Bacon

Highland View Elementary School educates children from one of the poorest districts in Bristol, a city where the poverty rate is nearly twice the state average. Poor families, mostly white, grapple with the same kinds of issues commonly associated with inner-city black families in Virginia’s urban crescent: broken families, high unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, disorganized lives, abuse, neglect, hunger and a lack of interest in academic achievement.

Yet somehow, Highland View accomplished something that 556 other schools with large at-risk student bodies did not. Reports Jim Nolan with the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “For the first time since 2011, it earned full accreditation from the state Department of Education. More than 70 percent of its students passed the Standards of Learning exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent cleared the benchmark in English.”

How did Highland View achieve full accreditation despite a 11% cut in per-pupil spending over 10 years?

Much of the credit goes to Principal Pam Smith, who recognizes that it takes more than textbooks and teaching to help poor children. “The school is their counselor, their doctor, their nutritionist, their mother,”she said. “We’re their family.” As Nolan tells the story, Smith knows the story behind every child, whether he or she is homeless and couch surfing (sleeping on couches in different homes), is hearing disabled, is being raised by a grandparent or has a father with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Credit goes, too, to the Bristol community, which has rallied behind the school. Home Depot has given Kindergarten cubbies. O’Reilly Auto Parts chipped in $800 to fund snacks for the after-school program. The local Kiwanis Club provides free vision screening and has contributed 100 pairs of shoes. Churches donate “snack packs” for kids to take home on weekends. Families contribute second-hand clothing so the school can maintain an inventory for when children appear at school in hopeless dirty, ragged or inappropriate clothing. A not-for-profit group, Communities in Schools, works closely with the Highland View to help families obtain counseling, housing, clothing, food, school supplies and transportation from local government agencies and not-for-profits.

By providing essential needs that parents have failed to provide their children, Highland View gives its pupils a fighting chance to earn an education and become productive citizens rather than fall into the quicksand of inter-generational poverty.

Bacon’s bottom line: Highland View is a success story. It is an example to be emulated. However, the nature of poverty in America today is such that, despite the existence of food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, nutritional programs for women with infants and young children, school lunch programs, housing assistance, child welfare services, and substance abuse & mental health programs, not to mention a host of private, not-for-profit enterprises filling gaps in the social safety net, the number of dysfunctional families appears to be increasing.

The problem is not simply that families are poor and have fallen on hard times, a predicament which some manage to work their way out of. The problem is that an increasing number of families are hopelessly irresponsible and disorganized. They lack the skills to function in contemporary society. They perform so badly as parents that society increasingly has to step in and fill their role. If children suffer from dysfunctional families in elementary school, does anything change when the children move onto middle school? How often are the gains achieved at Highland View lost in later years?

As a society, we are morally compelled to try to rescue these poor children. But I have to ask, do our good intentions aggravate the problems they are meant to solve? Do we make it easier for lousy parents to be even lousier parents? There has always been poverty in America. But I fear we are unintentionally creating a generation of poor people more lacking in basic life skills than at any time in American history.

Maximizing the ROI on Investments in Human Capital

heckmanby James A. Bacon

There is a sterile quality to the debate over universal childhood education. Liberals cite studies that say that it makes sense to invest in pre-school for poor children on the grounds that it increases the odds that kids will perform better academically, thus less likely to drop out of school, more likely to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated, saving society billions of dollars in the long run. Noting that pre-school can’t overcome the affects of dysfunctional families and lousy schools, skeptics (usually conservatives) say the positive effects fade within a few years and question whether creating another massive entitlement program will do any good.

As a society, we’re desperate to find something that helps poor children overcome the debilitating consequences not only of material poverty but an upbringing so impoverished that many don’t know their colors, numbers or ABCs by the time they enter kindergarten.

James V. Koch, professor emeritus of Old Dominion University, puts a different spin on the pre-K issue in the “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015.” He sides with those who believe that high-quality early childhood education has a large positive benefit but proposes a funding source for pre-K that makes the idea more palatable to conservatives.

Drawing upon the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman, Koch argues that social investment in human capital accomplishes more in a child’s early, formative development than later in life when his or her cognitive abilities have been largely set. As seen in the conceptual graph above, investing in enriching a child’s development at ages 0-3 yields a higher return than in preschool, which in turn provides a higher return than school, which in turns pays back more than job training.

Koch cites the famous Perry Preschool Project which began in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s. A $21,000 per pupil investment (in today’s dollars) yielded cumulative savings of $240,000 by age 40. Whether those results could be replicated is the subject of debate. But an even bigger problem is political. Someone is going to have to pay for universal pre-K. Middle-class parents are not likely to be thrilled about paying more in taxes so poor children can attend programs that cost two to three times what they can afford for their own children.

That political calculus could change if the funding comes from elsewhere. Writes Koch: “There is now a strong argument for shifting resources away from later-in-life job training programs and re-directing them to early childhood programs.” But that creates a political problem of its own, he concedes: Benefits from early-childhood programs take years to become manifest; the pain of training cutbacks is immediate.

Koch advances another novel argument: Early childhood education is good economic development.

One must compare these salutary results with the much less impressive outcomes that are generated by conventional businesses subsidies (usually tax incentives) that government units at all levels habitually utilize in hopes of improving their economic situations. … In general, tax incentives yield low returns for cities and counties that rely upon them, and typically yield negative returns for regions and states.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m skeptical of the whole ball of wax — early childhood intervention, government-administered job training programs, business subsidies, tax incentives, you name it. But if government has got to “do something” to reverse the pathologies and dysfunctions created by previous efforts to “do something,” then voluntary universal pre-K arguably would make a better long-run investment than jinky tax breaks and duplicative and ineffectual job training programs. Make universal pre-K spending neutral by cutting less effective programs, and I just might buy into it.

Speaking of Gay Rights…

gay_marriageLike a lot of other Americans, I have been slow to embrace the right of gays to marry. That’s because I respect the sanctity of an institution — marriage as the union between a man and a woman — that evolved over thousands of years. But, ultimately, my libertarian instincts prevailed.

As a libertarian/conservative, I espouse a win-win view of human rights. I don’t think, for example, that there is a fundamental human right to education or health care. Those so-called “rights” are derived, or subsidiary, rights. Financing one person’s “right” to health care can be achieved only by taking someone else’s property, thus harming that person. That’s not to say that society shouldn’t provide health care to all, but universal access to health care is something to be bestowed through legislation, not as a fundamental right.

What is a fundamental right? The right to vote is fundamental. Giving John the right to vote does not deprive Mary of the right to vote. Giving John the right of free speech does not deprive Mary of the right to free speech. Giving John the right to a trial by jury does not deprive Mary of the right to a trial by jury. Giving all citizens equal treatment under the law is a fundamental right.

By the same logic, giving Heather’s mommies the right to be married, along with all the privileges and appurtenances permitted under the law, does not deprive John and Mary of the right to marry.  So, while my heart tells me to support the traditional idea of marriage (not because I’m anti-gay, but because I’m pro-traditional marriage), reason tells me to support gay marriage. In this particular matter, I follow my head over my heart.


Why Doesn’t Heather Have Two Daddies?

heatherNews from Attorney General Mark R. Herring: Virginia has issued 2,670 marriage licenses and 70 birth certificates to same-sex couples since gay marriage became legal in Virginia a year ago. So reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The figure that startles me is the 70 birth certificates. Presumably, male same-sex couples are not giving birth (although I suppose it’s possible that gay men could hire surrogates like some heterosexual couples do). According to highly authoritative information I scraped off the first page of Google search results, the number of married gay females nearly equals the number of married gay males nationally. If national trends hold true in Virginia, that implies that about 1,300 gay female couples account for those 70 births. But that’s just a guess. I would be interested to see the break-down of the births by the gender of the parents.

Ignoring the ethical, religious and political dimensions of gays raising children, I’m fascinated from an anthropological perspective. Are gay women more inclined to want children than gay men? (I’m guessing that’s the case: After all, the name of the book was, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” not “Heather Has Two Daddies.”) Do gay women tend to be more nurturing than gay men, just as women are more nurturing than men in the general population? How do gay women decide which spouse bears the child? If they want more than one, do they take turns?

So many questions. This should be a fruitful field of inquiry for an aspiring young social scientist.


Breaking the Cycle of Debt and Suspended Licenses

Joe Herbin, driving worry-free and working as a forklift operator at Frito-Lay.

Joe Herbin, driving legally and working as a forklift operator at Frito-Lay.

by James A. Bacon

Joe Herbin has always been a hard worker. When he was 15 years old, he’d accumulated the $1,200 it took to buy an old Cadillac. The fact that he didn’t have a driver’s license — or was too young even to get one — wasn’t a deterrent. He installed a bad-ass sound system and drove around town like the king of the world for about a week, then had an accident in a gas station. The policeman gave him tickets for about four different violations — the first of many to come.

Herbin kept driving, though, and he kept racking up tickets in and around the City of Richmond, often while driving to or from work at Wal-Mart, Target or his cousin’s music CD shop. He prayed every day that he wouldn’t get stopped and slapped with another fine, penalty or gig in jail. He was around 22 years old when he was driving his pregnant girl friend to the hospital, when he got stopped again. This time someone finally told him about the Drive to Work program, a not-for-profit group dedicated to helping people with suspended licenses restore their driving privileges so they can function as productive members of society.

When Drive to Work staff tallied up all the fines, penalties and back interest, they found that Herbin owed a total of $7,500 to courts in five jurisdictions, each with its own set of procedures for collecting the money. By his own admission, Herbin is a “careless person,” lacking the temperament to make payments to so many court clerks on a regular basis. Drive to Work created a plan whereby he made a single monthly payment of $357 to the non-profit, and staff made sure each court clerk received the money on time. Drive to Work also negotiated a deal allowing Herbin to receive a restricted driver’s license allowing him to drive between home and work, home and church, and home and daycare.

Today, Herbin has worked his fines down to under $1,000 and his monthly payments to less than $50. He now drives a forklift for Frito-Lay making $17 an hour, as well as a part-time job for extra cash, and he lives in a committed relationship with the mother of his three children.

Herbin’s story is surprisingly common in Virginia. A recent study conducted of 606 of Drive to Work’s clients found that fines, penalties and interest ranged as high as $33,000, with average debt about $4,800. Clients owned money to an average of 3.6 different courts.

At an awards and recognition banquet Monday, Drive to Work President O. Randolph Rollins described the predicament of another client. Of the $8,000 in obligations he’d amassed, 35% consisted of unpaid fines, 45% of court penalties relating to hearing his case, and 20% interest.

The system creates a vicious cycle for poor and working class people who build up fines they cannot hope to repay, Rollins said. Many continue driving because they can’t get to work any other way, lose their license and lose their jobs. The situation is a Catch 22: Without work, they have no hope of generating earnings to repay the fines. Indeed, the inability to repay fines accounts for 37% of all suspended licenses in Virginia, Rollins said  — affecting nearly 200,000 people across the state.

Recognition of the need to restore drivers licenses became a political issue during the McDonnell administration and with bipartisan support has continued during the McAuliffe administration. The Department of Corrections has implemented a program to help felons prepare while still in prison to get their licenses when they re-enter society. And Del. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, submitted a bill in the 2015 session to study the use of drivers license suspensions as a collection method for unpaid court costs. Although that bill failed because of a technicality, said Rollins, there strong support for passing it next year.

The initiative to restore driving privileges is part of a larger movement to reintegrate felons into society upon their release. The days of giving an offender $20 and bus ticket home are long over. Virginia has one of the best track records in the country for recidivism, said Harold W. Clark, director of the Department of Corrections. Second only to the state of Oklahoma, the recidivism rate is just under 23%. The rate ranges as high as 60% in other states.

While the biggest risk factors for recidivism include antisocial personality, antisocial associations and dysfunctional family, the ability to find employment is one of the “top eight,” Clark said. “Not having a driver’s license is a serious problem. People without driving privileges are effectively excluded from many jobs.”

Many offenders don’t know why their license was suspended or how to get it back, said Clark. A program like Drive to Work helps them navigate the bureaucratic maze, create plans for repaying fines and get offenders a license, even if just a restricted one, that allows them to seek employment.

Conservatives, Planned Parenthood Is the Wrong Target

Poverty fighter: the IUD

Poverty fighter: the IUD

by James A. Bacon

Like millions of other Americans, I was horrified by the videos detailing the traffic in aborted fetal tissues and organs in which Planned Parenthood takes part. But I’m not joining the parade of conservatives calling for the de-funding of the organization. Not only would de-funding be a meaningless gesture — Planned Parenthood doesn’t use federal funds to finance its abortion operations — it would not address the complex moral trade-offs arising from the harvesting and sale of fetal parts. That trade would continue even if Planned Parenthood shut down tomorrow.

What Planned Parenthood does use federal money for is family planning, pregnancy tests and prenatal care for low-income women. While conservatives have legitimate reasons to oppose abortions — I share some of their reservations, especially concerning late-term abortions — conservatives should support Planned Parenthood’s distribution of contraceptives on the grounds that family planning is the most effective anti-poverty (and anti-abortion) program we know of.

Poverty in America is intractable. Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, we’re still fighting it. The usual liberal solution — spending more money on income transfers and creating new poverty-fighting bureaucracies — is not working. Indeed, the liberal paradigm perpetuates poverty by weakening the incentive of poor people to lift themselves from their condition.

We continually hear that more children live in poverty than adults. That’s because, while many people manage to rise out of poverty, their departure from the ranks of the poor is more than offset by the large number of children born in poor households. Indeed, women in households making less than $10,000 per year give birth at nearly twice the rate of women making $35,000 a year or more, as seen below.

Source: Statista

Source: Statista

And that raw fertility number understates the nature of the problem. Poor women also tend to bear children at younger ages than higher-income women, who tend to defer childbirth until after college and marriage. Thus, a poor woman bearing a daughter at age 18, who in turn bears another daughter at age 18, adds two people to the ranks of the poor in the same period of time in which a high-income career woman bearing her first child at age 36 adds to the ranks of the non-poor.

I rarely find myself in agreement with Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, but she has the facts on her side in this instance: Low-income women are no more likely than higher-income women to be sexually active, but they are less likely to use birth control. Thus, says Rampell, a poor woman is more than five times as likely to get pregnant by accident than an affluent woman.

Anyone interested in fighting poverty without expanding the federal entitlement programs that are driving the country toward fiscal insolvency should enthusiastically embrace the policy of giving poor women more control over their fertility. When poor women control their pregnancy, they are likely to have fewer children, and when they do have them, they are more likely to do so at a later date — waiting, perhaps, until after they have graduated from high school, found a job and possess the maturity and financial resources to be a good parent.

Family planning is one of the very few anti-poverty programs that work, and it’s arguably the most cost-effective. Conservatives need to stop venting about Planned Parenthood and turn their attention to the larger and more challenging job of crafting an ethically responsible approach to the trade in fetal organs.

Why Must Hundreds of Richmond Children Seek Medical Care Outside Richmond?

VCU Children's Pavilion -- no substitute for an, independent, free-standing children's hospital.

VCU Children’s Pavilion — no substitute for an, independent, free-standing children’s hospital.

by James A. Bacon

An excellent article in Style Weekly asks an important question: “Hundreds of local children have illnesses that send them beyond Richmond to seek pediatric care. Why can’t we treat them here?”

The answer: Because the Richmond region is one of the few in the country not to have a dedicated, free-standing children’s hospital. And why doesn’t Richmond have a children’s hospital? Well, you’ll have to read the article, written by former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Peter Galuszka, to find out. While Peter refrains from tarring and feathering the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, evidence in his article points to VCU’s desire to hang on to its own pediatric business as a major obstacle.

As it happens, I’ve been poking around the edges of this story, which I may or may not have time to pursue. One angle among many that are worth investigating would be to document just how many families must seek medical treatment outside Richmond because specialized pediatric services are not available locally.

I recently chatted with two prominent pediatricians. They cited a report that said about 750 children each year seek medical attention outside the Richmond area, in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. That doesn’t include many hundreds of others who seek care, say, at Duke University in North Carolina, or any number of other hospitals around the country.

The problem is that Richmond divides the pediatric practice between three hospital systems: VCU, Bon Secours and HCA. A children’s hospital, advocates say, would create a volume and scale of operation that none of those institutions can achieve on their own. A higher volume would enable a children’s hospital to recruit more pediatric specialists to Richmond. Instead of seeking care outside the region, with all the added costs of travel, overnight stays and time off from work that entails, many families could find that treatment available here in town. There will always be some rarefied specialties that the local medical marketplace can’t support, but a children’s hospital would alleviate the problem to a significant degree.

VCU President countered that logic with vague statements regarding the continued instability and uncertainty in the health care industry and the argument that “collaborative care” was a better approach than a stand-alone hospital. What do they mean by collaborative care? Who knows? Writes Galuszka: “Rao and [Bon Secours CEO Toni] Ardabell declined interviews to elaborate on their positions.”

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.