Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Virginia’s Political Class as Criminal Class

morris

Morris

Del. Richard L. Morris, R-Suffolk, has been charged with 14 counts of violence against members of his household, including offenses of cruelty and injuries toward a minor, as well as assault and battery against a female relative, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Three of the charges stemmed from allegations that Morris had physically assaulted a boy relative Sept. 16, causing “injuries consistent with excessive physical discipline.” Suffolk police made contact with the boy, writes the T-D, after receiving a complaint from Child Protective Services. Additional charges arose from an alleged assault last year on an adult woman in the Morris household. The alleged victims were not identified by name or relation.

Morris is married and has nine children. Ironically, according to Morris’s website biography, he is treasurer and finance director of the Southeastern Hampton Roads CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), “a group of volunteers that represent abused and neglected children in court and advocates for their needs.”

I’m guessing these charges will make it hard for Morris to run on a family values platform.

— JAB

Don’t Short-Change Our Troopers

state_policeby James A. Bacon

The Virginia State Police face a severe manpower shortage: Veteran police are resigning faster than recruits can be trained. In the first nine months of this year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 103 sworn employees and 76 civilian employees have left the department. Meanwhile, applications to join the state police have fallen 49% since February.

Excluding police in training, the department is 220 troopers short. In the Richmond area, state police have lost 11 troopers from the 40-trooper allotment for Area 8. Staffing frequently dips below the “safe and acceptable minimum” of 18 troopers needed for each 24-hour period, according to a memo written by Col. W. Steven Flaherty, state police superintendent.

Applications for law enforcement are trending downward nationally, said Flaherty, but the problem is accentuated in Virginia by noncompetitive starting salaries.

“Our troopers are taking up collections for other troopers who cannot afford to buy their own lunch,” one commander wrote to another state police official in an email. “They are risking their lives every day and cannot afford to eat. What does that say?”

Since 2006, reports the T-D, the state police have experienced a $94.2 million reduction in General Fund budget resources. Additional cuts under consideration would hack out another $13.1 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: While reading this article this morning, a story appeared on the television news about an inexplicable and horrifying police shooting of an unarmed black man in Oklahoma who appeared not to be threatening or resisting in any way. Now, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to be a police officer never knowing if the subject of a stop will resist violently. Nationally, the number of police shootings is up markedly this year. But the juxtaposition of the two stories tells me that we need more than ever to hire the highest-caliber police officers who can exercise good judgment and maintain their cool in tense, ambiguous situations. And we don’t accomplish that aim by neglecting pay raises and slashing departmental budgets year after year.

Budget makers face hard choices in allocating scarce resources. I do not envy their job. But law enforcement is a core function of government. If the state police budget is to be cut, then the department’s mission must be redefined to align it with the resources available. Stressing troopers by stretching the force too thin cannot possibly end well.

A Measured Approach to Restoring Felons’ Civil Rights

by James A. Bacon

habeeb

Del. Gregg Habeeb

Virginia Republicans have excoriated Governor Terry McAuliffe for endeavoring to issue a blanket restoration of civil rights to ex-felons. So, what’s their alternative?

First and most important, Republicans are submitting their proposals as bills that can be reviewed, debated, and amended. The process is transparent, and the public will have a chance to weigh in.

Second, a legislative package announced by Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem sets different standards for violent and non-violent offenders. Explains Habeeb in a press release (no link):

The constitutional amendment would allow non-violent offenders, as defined by the General Assembly, to automatically receive their political rights after they have completed their sentence, including all supervised or unsupervised probation, and paid all fines, fees, court costs, and restitution. Violent offenders would be allowed to apply to the governor two years after they have completed their sentence and any probation. The governor would be allowed to restore rights on an individual basis after they have paid their fines, fees, court costs, and restitution.

Everyone deserves an opportunity at redemption, but the nature and severity of the crimes should be taken into consideration and a second chance should only come after they have completed their entire sentence, which includes paying their debts to the justice system and to victims.

The package, which is co-sponsored by De. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, and Peter Farrell, R-Henrico, also would restore the right to own a firearm to non-violent offenders.

There’s a lot to debate here, but I’d wager this package comes closer than a blanket restoration of rights to reflecting the sentiments of most Virginians. But we really won’t know for sure until we subject the proposal to the legislative process. It’s called democracy. Some people still believe in the concept.

Dude, Really?

opera_singer
Opera singer Krista Clouse was arrested last week by Alexandria police officers for performing on the street. Well, technically, she was arrested for using a speaker system without a permit. City Manager Mark B. Jinks later apologized for the way the situation was  handled, noting that Clouse should have been issued a written order to stop singing. The Washington Post has the story here.

In my view, Clouse’s real offense wasn’t singing in public, it was singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” in public. The only thing worse would have been belting out the score from “Cats.” But you can’t arrest someone for singing Andrew Lloyd Weber!

— JAB

Virginia’s New Debtor’s Prison

speeding_ticketby James A. Bacon

Damian Stinnie, a 24-year-old African American living in Charlottesville, grew up in the foster care system in Virginia but managed to graduate from high school with a 3.9 GPA. Living with his twin since aging out of foster care, he has worked nearly full-time as a sales clerk at Walmart and, after losing that job, at Abercrombie & Fitch, earning minimum wage, or about $300 per week.

In 2013, Stinnie was convicted of four traffic citations, resulting in fines and charges of $1,002. When he was unable to pay, his driver’s license was suspended, and another $501 in costs imposed. Not knowing that his license was suspended, he continued driving. Stopped again, he was cited for driving without a license. Later that year, he was hospitalized for lymphoma. Unable to attend the court hearing, he was found guilty in absentia of driving without a license and ordered to pay another $117 in court costs and a $150 fine. And the story of woe, cited in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center, just gets worse. Read it and weep.

An estimated 940,000 Virginians, disproportionately minorities, have a suspended license for nonpayment of court costs and fines. Not every case may be as severe as Stinnie’s, but thousands are trapped in a downward spiral. Denied a license, they find it difficult to find and maintain a job. If they drive illegally, they rack up even more court costs and fines.

“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, is quoted as saying in the Reason Foundation’s Hit & Run blog. “Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses.”

Last month the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s policy of suspending drivers licenses indefinitely for unpaid court debts. States the lawsuit:

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts. …

In order to fund its basic operations, the Commonwealth has steadily increased the amounts that may be taxes as costs against convicted criminal and traffic defendants and tacked on various additional fees.

Assessments against criminal and traffic court defendants have risen from $281.5 million in fiscal year 1998 to $618.8 million in 2014.

Bacon’s bottom line: Clearly, the system has broken down. Thousands of Virginians are caught in a vicious cycle of indebtedness to the courts. The system needs to be reformed.

But how do we reform it? That gets tricky. The unfortunate Mr. Stimmie did have a bad habit of piling up traffic tickets. Do we abandon the practice of fining people who violate traffic laws? Do we scale the size of the fines according to peoples’ incomes, as they I believe they do in some Scandinavian countries? Do we stop requiring people to pay court costs? If we do so, who does pay — the general public? Do lawbreakers get off scot free and law-abiding citizens pick up the tab?

Whatever the answer — and there are no easy ones — we need to do something. Particularly heinous, insofar as it does occur, is the practice of jacking up fines and penalties as a substitute for taxes. If there is a social justice cause that could unite liberals, libertarians and perhaps even conservatives, this would be it.

Update: Correction made to Damian Stimmie’s pay at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Educating Teens on Interactions with Police

police_and_teensby James A. Bacon

As part of his broader 21st-Century Policing Initiative, Attorney General Mark Herring has unveiled a program to educate teens on their rights and responsibilities in interacting with law enforcement. The idea is to keep situations from escalating to the point where the safety of either the youth or police is put in danger.

“For more than two years I’ve been having conversations with law enforcement, parents, ministers, community leaders and others about how we can meet our dual goals of making sure that police can keep our communities safe while guaranteeing that everyone is treated fairly and equally,” said Herring in a press release.

“One thing I heard is that many parents, especially African-American and Latino parents, worry about their child reacting to police in a moment of panic and either getting in more trouble or even creating a potentially dangerous situation. If we can help our young people understand their rights and responsibilities, and help them understand what an officer is seeing and thinking during an encounter, we can take some of the fear out of those interactions and make them safer,” Herring said.

The program is the latest module in the AG’s Virginia Rules program delivered through more than 1,500 law enforcement officers, school resource officers, commonwealth’s attorneys, and community leaders. So far in 2016 some 45,000 Virginia students have participated in the program.

Bacon’s bottom line: This program makes total sense to me. Almost every incident involving police-on-citizen violence results from a situation that starts peacefully and spins out of control. Most would agree that police need training to learn how to deal with these situations. But it takes two to tango, so to speak. Young people could benefit from training as well. Hopefully, the new module will be made available to all high school students, not just the stereotypical disadvantaged African-American kids. Young males of all ethnicities are prone to hot-blooded behavior and need to know how to conduct themselves around the police.

Here’s Hoping Herring Succeeds with his “Equal Justice” Initiative

Attorney General Mark Herring

Attorney General Mark Herring

by James A. Bacon

State Attorney General Mark R. Herring has launched a statewide initiative that has garnered less press attention than it probably warrants: an “equal justice” program that includes “implicit bias” training for police officers, updating of academy training materials, minority officer recruitment, and improving interactions between law enforcement and young people.

The rollout comes against the backdrop of police killings of unarmed black men in various locations around the country and retaliatory killings of police in Texas. Once can argue whether policing is as discriminatory against African-Americans as portrayed by the Black Lives Matter movement and the media. Police kill twice as many whites as blacks, after all, even though such incidents receive minimal media attention. But as Herring emphasizes:

Here in Virginia, I think most of us, if probably not all of us, agree on two goals: No. 1, we want to make sure law enforcement can safely and effectively protect our communities, and we want to make sure everybody is treated equally and fairly. There are two goals I think we can all agree on, and they are not in conflict with one another. And I would submit we have to get them both right if we’re really going to have the safe, successful communities we want.

I certainly share those two goals. Insofar as the criminal justice system is stacked against minorities, we need to reform it. The question comes down to implementation. In striving for “equal justice” for minorities, do we sacrifice community safety? When we ask that question, let us bear in mind that any diminution of safety will come mainly at the expense of minorities, thus creating a new form of injustice.

I have no settled opinions on Herring’s main initiatives. In the abstract, they are appealing. Yes, policemen should be devoid of ethnic/racial bias. Yes, we should have more minority policemen, particularly African-Americans, to patrol African-American neighborhoods. Yes, police should work harder to build trust with the communities they work in.

On the other hand, also in theory, it may be possible for police to get too touchie-feelie in their dealings with the criminal element, thus giving bad guys more leeway to do their bad-guy thing. We have seen in cities from Baltimore to Chicago what happens when police back off — the murder rate goes up.

As a conservative who believes that the maintenance of “law and order” is the most fundamental function of government, I say let’s wish Herring well with his initiatives to make Virginia safer and to create color-blind policing. But let us also pay very close attention to the results. The number of “violent” crimes in Virginia peaked at 24,160 in 1993. The number declined consistently thereafter to 15,676 in 2012, before bumping back up to 16,340 in 2014, according to DisasterCenter.com. I’ll be watching.