Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Curse Thee, Demon Smart Meter!

Photo credit: Pew Charitable Trust

Photo credit: Pew Charitable Trust

Smart meters could be a key contributor to America’s evolution to an energy-efficient future. The devices measure gas and electricity consumption, helping consumers reduce energy consumption, save money and reduce the CO2 emissions implicated in global warming. The widespread use of smart meters could enable power companies to offer incentives for consumers to shift their electricity consumption away from periods of peak demand, thus cutting costs for everyone.

But a backlash against smart meters is picking up steam. Some say the data they convey over wireless networks can be hacked by criminals to target homes. Utilities say the fears are overblown, but 15 states now allow consumers to opt out of smart meter installations. Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline has the story here.

Good intentions are no match for the stubbornness and perversity of mankind.


Uber and Lyft Are Wonderful, but Not that Wonderful


Click for larger image

It makes a great story: The Department of Motor Vehicles registered some 86,000 drivers under new “transportation service company” rules in 2015, Virginians are availing themselves of Uber and Lyft ridership services in record numbers, and the rate of alcohol-related automobile crashes declined markedly last year. It stands to reason, more Virginians are taking rides with Uber and Lyft instead of driving under the influence.

“While it may be too soon to say definitively that the availability of Uber and Lyft in Virginia played a major role in that, there appears to be a causal connection,” said DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb in a statement reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As regular Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I’m a big fan of Uber and Lyft. They are spearheading the greatest transportation revolution since the invention of the automobile. But let’s not get carried away. It is too soon to credit the transportation service companies with playing a “major” role in reducing drunk driving.

The chart above is taken from DMV data, with provisional 2015 numbers plugged in. It shows clearly that the steep decline in alcohol-related accidents started in 2013, two years before the surge in Uber-Lyft activity. My working hypothesis is that Virginia courts and police intensified their crackdown of drunk driving around that time (as well they should have, given the soaring numbers before then). It’s fantastic that Uber and Lyft give late-night revelers a convenient alternative to driving while intoxicated, and I’m sure they helped in 2015. But I suspect that the bulk of the credit goes to the courts and police.


Bacon Bits: Virginia, Fifth Safest State in the Union

bacon_bits2Virginia is one of only five states in the country where fewer than 200 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 inhabitants last year, according to MSN Money. That makes it the safest state in the Southeast and the Mid-Atlantic. Higher incomes and a lower poverty rate were big contributors, contends the less-than-authoritative commentary to accompany the Virginia state profile.


What Virginia Millennials Are Looking For


Source: Wason Center for Public Policy. Click for legible image.

by James A. Bacon

Three out of four Virginia Millennials (belonging to the 18- to 36-year-old age cohort) are largely satisfied with the quality of life in their communities. But local quality-of-life indicators often fall short of what Millennials are looking for, and many are open to moving to other parts  of Virginia or even to other states. So finds a new survey of 2,000 young adults in “Virginia Millennials Come of Age” by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

The survey covered a wide range of topics, including political involvement, civic engagement, personal financial outlook and news sources. But of particular interest to this blog are the questions relating to quality of life. Given that creative and educated young adults contribute disproportionately to a region’s innovation and vibrancy, community leaders need to understand the factors that attract and drive them away.

Judging by the metrics selected, Millennials in Northern Virginia are most satisfied with the quality of life in their communities (despite the traffic!), followed by Hampton Roads. They are less satisfied in the Richmond region, and least satisfied in South/Southwest Virginia.

The metrics include: access to public transportation, walkability, proximity to work and/or school, proximity to parks and shopping, a mix of housing, good public schools, safe neighborhoods, proximity to family, a diverse population, and having enough people of their own age. (Those are all reasonable metrics, but I would argue that the list is incomplete and, therefore, gives an incomplete picture. How about the cost of living? Or the quality of the food scene? Or proximity to arts and culture? Or opportunities to engage in the community — a factor rated highly by Millennials, according to the survey?)

The survey asked respondents to evaluate how important these quality-of-life indicators are when thinking about moving somewhere new, and how well each one describes their present community. The "gap" represents the difference between the two.

The survey asked respondents to evaluate how important these quality-of-life indicators are when thinking about moving somewhere new, and how well each one describes their present community. The “gap” represents the difference between the two. (Click for larger image.)

Wason didn’t analyze the data this way, but I find it interesting that proximity to amenities — work, schools, shopping, entertainment, parks and recreation — all ranked in the top half of the list. The desire for compact communities is reinforced by the identification of “walkable areas” as a priority. It stands to reason that neighborhoods in which amenities are “close” are also more walkable.

Virginia policy makers should pay close attention to this finding as they think about transportation and land use priorities.

The desire for proximity and walkability does not translate into a wholesale endorsement of the Smart Growth agenda, however. The desire for a “range of transportation options” — which presumably includes mass transit — was second lowest on the list. The perceived gap between the ideal and reality was negligible.

Likewise, the desire for a “mix of types and values of housing” was only middling. However, I’m not sure that most respondents had a clear idea of what the question meant. Did they think it referred to communities in which housing was integrated with offices, retail and other amenities — the Smart Growth desiderata? Or were respondents focusing on the importance of “affordable” housing? Two very different things A follow-up survey might delve deeper.

Also interesting is the fact that a “diversity of people in the area” ranked lowest on the list. That may not be a topic that preoccupies the average Millennial as much as it does the academic community.

The old-fashioned values of safe neighborhoods and good public schools also rank high. (It would be interesting to see how Millennials without children compared to Millennials with children in evaluating the importance of public schools. I would be willing to wager that parents consider school quality a lot more than singles do.)

All things considered, the survey results suggest that Virginia lawmakers and civic leaders have cause for concern if they want the state to remain an attractive location for young people. Virginia Millennials are highly mobile, with 65% saying they are thinking about moving within the next five years. Of those, 38% say they would consider moving to somewhere else in Virginia, and 27% somewhere outside of Virginia. Within Virginia, Northern Virginia is by far the most popular destination. Regions in the rest of the state have their work cut out for them.

The New Wave of Senseless Violence

Amiya Moses, caught in the cross fire.

Amiya Moses, caught in the cross fire.

by James A. Bacon

This may be the most grim but fascinating sociological insight into the nature of poverty and crime I’ve seen all year… While violent crime is down overall in the City of Richmond since its horrendous peak in the 1990s, which earned the city the reputation as a murder capital of the United States, the motives for assault and murder have changed dramatically.

“Where a decade ago most shootings were fueled by a melange of drugs, gangs and robbery, today the standout motive is petty squabbles turning into deadly violence,”writes reporter Ted Strong writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“A lot of folks today don’t know how to resolve conflict,” said Police Chief Alfred Durham at a news conference about the death of 12-year-old Amiya Moses, who was killed a week ago in an argument that escalated into a gunfight. “They resort to violence and we have to change that behavior. And when I say we, it’s not the police department’s job to change that behavior, but it’s the community.”

The change has been so marked that Richmond prosecutors do not even try to provide a motive for murder in jury trials, said Traci Miller, assistant commonwealth attorney. The triviality of the motive is too jarring. “It’s so senseless that I don’t want to try to sell that to a jury,” she said.

Bacon’s bottom line: The 90’s-era murder wave proved ephemeral thanks to a variety of factors that social scientists do not fully agree upon but are commonly attributed to superior policing and a parole system that kept bad guys locked in jail longer. What’s particularly worrisome about the new wave of violence is that it might well prove to be impervious to policing and corrections policies. The rapid escalation of minor arguments into deadly violence arguably reflects the underlying pathologies of entrenched, multi-generational poverty that fails to inculcate in children the most basic standards of behavior.

To be sure, prosecutors attribute the problem in part to the easy availability of guns. When everyone has access to a gun, angry disputes that once would have led to fisticuffs now lead to shootings. It’s not clear, however, if guns are more easily available today than they were ten years ago.

The problem is especially acute in Richmond because poverty is so concentrated there. Sadly, the erosion of the social fabric among America’s poor is endemic, not just among Richmond’s inner-city blacks, but among poor whites and the poor of other races and ethnicities. Thus, Richmond’s inner city could be the fabled canary in the coal mine, giving us insight into the emergent nature of violent crime everywhere.

The Forgotten Victims of the Crack Addict

crackby James A. Bacon

Carl V. Hughes IV, a 28-year-old Chesterfield County man, had a serious addiction to crack cocaine. Living with his sister and elderly parents, he frequently stole from them to support his habit. According to testimony from a recent trial, he’d stolen a video game system and games from his sister, a laptop computer and car from his mother, and a video game system and cell phone from his former girlfriend and mother of his child.

On Sept. 22, high on crack and resentful of ridicule for his out-of-control drug use, he felt like he had “no other alternative” than to “erase” his family. He proceeded to stab his father and mother to death in their sleep, and then his sister as she watched television. After the killings, he met a woman in a hotel on Jefferson Davis Highway, purchased more crack and smoked it with her. Later, he pawned his mother’s wedding ring and two other rings to buy more drugs.

The next day, police found him at the railing of the Lee Bridge, where he was threatening to commit suicide. He was distraught at what he’d done, telling police “he could not believed he killed his sister” because she “was the only one who loved” him. The Times-Dispatch has the details of the story here.

It’s a tragic story all the way around. It’s also a powerful reminder of (a) the power of crack cocaine to destroy peoples’ lives, not just the lives of users but the people around them, and (b) why there are laws on the books that dish out harsher penalties for crack than powdered cocaine, a disparity than many have decried as racist because crack users are disproportionately African-American.

The story also occurs against a growing sense of white guilt at the “mass incarceration” of African-American men and concern about the impact that incarceration has on the black family — it’s difficult for a man to be a good husband and father while he’s stewing in jail — when one-third of African-American males wind up in jail or prison at some point in their lives, often for seemingly victimless crimes like drug possession.

I have no doubt that there are injustices in the criminal justice system, and I’m open to the idea that there are better ways to handle the epidemic of substance abuse (which is just as prevalent among whites as it is among blacks, incidentally) than throwing every offender in jail. I also share the belief that drug addicts have a problem that cannot be solved by incarceration; they need help dealing with their substance abuse. However, amidst the rush to portray drug users as victims of institutional racism, I have seen little acknowledgement as the debate has unfolded that drug addicts often prey on the people around them — stealing their money, pawning their possessions, assaulting them, dumping familial responsibilities others, and, in extreme cases like Hughes’, killing them.

Family members of substance abusers are the silent victims. Hughes’s family came to the notice of the public only because a triple homicide is such an extreme case. But before the murders, no one knew about or cared about Hughes’ endless predation upon family members in a series of petty crimes that most likely were never reported. How many thousands of other families in Virginia are suffering silently from a substance abuser close to them? How many of them feel oppressed by their presence, and how many, at some level, feel liberated when their oppressor is put in jail?

It’s good to have a conversation about the mass incarceration of young African-American men. We should be investing more resources in programs that help substance abusers kick their habit and ease their transition from jail and prison back into society. But we also need to be cognizant of their silent victims, who also happen to be African-American and whose interests may not be served by handing out get-out-of-jail free cards to the people who rob and abuse them. Those people have rights, too. Their rights just aren’t politically fashionable right now.

Blankenship Convicted

Bacon’s Rebellion readers will remember that former long-time contributor Peter Galuszka devoted much of his time and energy to chronicling the activities of former coal mogul Donald L. Blankenship. Although Blankenship was better known in West Virginia where he lived and worked, he had a Virginia connection as CEO for many years of Richmond-headquartered Massey Energy. Blankenship made national headlines in 2010 when the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia erupted in an explosion that killed 29 miners.

After a trial yesterday in U.S. District Court in Charleston, W.Va., Blankenship, whom Peter colorfully describes as the “Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” was found guilty of a misdemeanor for conspiring to evade federal mine safety laws. He was acquitted on two counts of making false statements.

You can read Peter’s take on the trial in Slate.

Also, check out the video excerpt above from “Blood on the Mountain,” a documentary about the Upper Big Branch disaster. Peter, author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” is interviewed around the 3:30 minute mark.