Category Archives: Crime and corrections

The Virginia Way Rides On

the virgiia way

There you go again. Yesterday, Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms was charged with five counts of violating the state’s Conflict of Interest Act. The Virginian-Pilot’s article on the matter can be found here. Mayor Sessoms is accused of casting votes to benefit the borrowers of the bank where he served as president. To state what is hopefully obvious, Mayor Sessoms is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. As of now, the mayor has been accused, not convicted.

A rap on the knuckles. One stunning aspect of the accusation is the minimal penalty it carries. Prosecutor Michael Doucette said that the maximum penalty for these misdemeanor offenses would be $500 each. So, Mayor Sessoms faces a “worst case” scenario of paying $2,500 if convicted of abusing his office on five occasions. Less than the cost of a Rolex watch. Given “the Virginia Way,” it is probably needless to say that Mayor Sessoms will not need to step down from elected office even if he is convicted on all five counts. Why should a politician be asked to step down from elected office if all he or she has done is abuse that office for personal gain?  While five charges have been filed, the Virginian-Pilot thinks there is more to this story:

  • “The state’s criminal investigation ended about a year after The Virginian-Pilot first reported that Sessoms, 61, a former TowneBank president, had voted dozens of times on issues that benefited clients of the bank.” 

The song remains the same.  Assuming the charges against Mayor Sessoms are sustained this puts yet another nail in the coffin of Virginia’s political integrity. We now have Phil Hamilton (former member of the Virginia House of Delegates) doing nine and a half years in the big house, John W Forbes II (former Virginia Secretary of Finance) serving ten years in the pokey for embezzling $4M from the tobacco indemnification fund and the former governor and his wife hoping that the US Supreme Court will keep them out of the federal pen. Amazingly, these convictions come from a state that has essentially no ethics laws or regulations against elected politicians lining their pockets while in office. Imagine how lonely the next General Assembly session would be if Virginia actually legislated against political graft!

— D.J. Rippert

How the War on Poverty Went Awry


Edward C. Banfield

by James A. Bacon

In 1968, nearly five decades ago, Edward C. Banfield wrote a brilliant analysis of urban problems in America: “The Unheavenly City.” Today, his contributions have been all but forgotten. But they are worth resurrecting because of their prescience. While optimists proclaimed that the expansive programs of the Great Society would conquer poverty, Banfield believed the opposite. “Unless lower-class persons display an unprecedented amount of upward mobility,” he predicted, “the lower-class population of the city may grow, perhaps rather rapidly.”

Despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars on the social safety net, urban renewal and anti-poverty programs, poverty is as deeply entrenched and endemic as it was when the Great Society was put into place. Liberals and progressives say the reason is that American society simply hasn’t spent enough money. Just fund pre-K, raise the minimum wage or address the food desert, and we’ll get there. But disciples of Banfield know otherwise, for those programs fundamentally misdiagnose the problem of poverty in America.

Banfield viewed the poverty through the prism of future orientation. He divided society into four classes — upper, middle, working and poor — based upon the ability of people to envision the future, defer present gratification for future reward, and control their impulses. Those who worked for the future would be upwardly mobile; those who lived present-oriented lives would be downwardly mobile. Present-oriented people would tend to collect in the lower economic classes, earning less money. More important than their material poverty, these peoples’ lives would be marked by violence, crime, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and all manner of other social pathologies.

The American welfare state has done a reasonable job at ameliorating material conditions of poverty. As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, Heritage Foundation scholars drawing upon Census Bureau data, America’s poor have access to material possessions once considered luxuries: 80% have air conditioning, 92% own a microwave, nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV, and half have a personal computer; 82% of poor parents reported never being hungry due to a lack of money for food; the average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor person in Sweden, France or the United Kingdom.

What makes the lives of American poor people miserable is not material deprivation but dysfunctional behavior. As Banfield wrote, “A slum is not simply a district of low-quality housing; rather it is one in which the style of life is squalid and vicious.”

The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment. If he has any awareness of a future, it is of something fixed, fated, beyond his control: things happen to him. He does not make them happen. Impulse governs his behavior, either because he cannot discipline himself to sacrifice a present for a future satisfaction or because he has no sense of the future. He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for “action” take precedence over everything else — and certainly over any work routine. He works only as he must to stay alive, and drifts from one unskilled job to another, taking no interest in the work. …

In his relations with others, he is suspicious and hostile, aggressive yet dependent. He is unable to maintain a stable relationship with a mate; commonly he does not marry. He feels no attachment to community, neighbors, or friends (he has companions, not friends), resents all authority (for example, that of policemen, social workers, teachers, landlords, employers), and is apt to think that he has been “railroaded” and to want to “get even.” He is a nonparticipant: he belongs to no voluntary organizations, has no political interests, and does not vote unless paid to do so.

The lower-class household is usually female-based. The woman who heads it is likely to have a succession of mates who contribute intermittently to its support but take little or no part in rearing the children. … The stress on “action,” risk-taking, conquest, fighting and “smartness” makes lower-class life extraordinarily violent. … In its emphasis on “action” and its utter instability, lower-class culture seems to be more attractive to men than to women.

Banfield goes on to make various predictions that that idealists and social engineers plausibly could deny at the time but seem indubitably true after five decades of failed social policy: Continue reading

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

Why Released Felons Fail

stacked_odds2by Sarah Scarbrough

Society chastises criminals, felons, addicts and others getting out of jail. The average citizen today thinks this population consists of bad guys. Why should people care about repeat offenders? They deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away. But in the next breath, people decry generational cycles of criminality and the high rates of recidivism.

Have you ever thought the two might go hand in hand?

It isn’t easy to escape the cycle. Let me present three situations that will make you think in a different vein – and, if not, at least give you food for thought. The stories below are true; some names have been changed to protect their identity.

Meet Scott. He’s a 39-year-old African American male. Scott met a girl that he really fell for. He was over 18; she was just shy of 18 years old. The girl’s mom didn’t like Scott, not one bit. She threatened him if they didn’t break up. Scott cared too much for the girl to leave her, so the mom filed charges against him for having sex with her underage daughter. At this point, in 1998, Scott was put behind bars. Criminality began with narcotics and related charges over the next 18 years.

Scott just finished serving 24 months for a hit and run. While he was locked up this time he did everything he could to rehabilitate himself. He worked extremely hard, and seven days a week. Many people recognized his work and he received constant commendations. As Scott neared release, however, he had nowhere to go. He literally was going to be homeless after release. He did not have one single person to call for help, not even someone to pick him up after he was released. He had four t-shirts and three boxers to his name – that is it. No socks, shoes, or pants. No money either, not a penny.

Scott seemed destined to live on the street corner somewhere, maybe under a bridge if it was raining. Fortunately, he was such a hard worker and had reached out for help to so many jail staff while incarcerated that donations came in like crazy. (The picture above shows the donations.) He received two bus tickets as well. But he was had nowhere to live. Not only did he not have money to fund a place, but he was a sex offender, making it close to impossible to find his own place. Because he was going to be on state supervision, he was set up to stay in a local hotel. Between the donations, including some non-perishable food items, and the hotel, we thought he would do OK. Little did we know the continued obstacles he would face.

Scott had no refrigerator or microwave in his hotel room, thus preparing food was tough. He did not have any money – literally not a dime. How was he supposed to eat? Open a a can of green beans and eat straight out of the can. Or eat protein bars for all three meals? He could not eat the mac ‘n cheese because he couldn’t heat the noodles. There were roaches covering his hotel room – on the first morning at the hotel he killed over 50 roaches (not an exaggeration). He needed to get a state ID to get food stamps. Well, the ID costs $15. He then needed a document from the Virginia State Police to get the ID. That cost $30. With no money, how could he get these items? Without these items he couldn’t get food stamps. Without the food stamps, he could not to eat. Without an ID he couldn’t get a job either. Wow, talk about setting someone up for failure. No wonder some many people have trouble breaking the cycle.

Fortunately, someone he networked with while in jail took Scott under his wing. His friend paid for the ID and the state police document, bought him McDonalds for lunch on the day of release, and bought him Wendy’s for lunch the next day. Wow, thank goodness he found this person. But not everyone in Scott’s position finds someone to help. If he hadn’t had this person helping him, it would have been next to impossible to escape the cycle. Sadly, the person who took Scott under his wing stated to me via text, “He seems depressed. He’s been institutionalized. He’s on his own, with nobody and he’s lonely. To top it off, HE KNOWS HE HAD IT BETTER IN JAIL.”

Wow, he had it better in jail. But it makes sense. Three meals, heat, and a roof over his head with no roaches, all of his basic needs were taken care of. Despite these obstacles, Scott began working on his forklift certificate after release, got a job interview in two days seven days after release, and landed another job interview later in the week. This is awesome. But how hard will it be for Scott to succeed considering everything is working against him? Continue reading

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.

Mass Incarceration (Part II)

Richmond City Justice Center -- model for the post-mass incarceration era?

Richmond City Justice Center — model for the post-mass incarceration era?

by Sarah Scarbrough

My last blog post established that crime has gone down since mass incarceration began but that mass incarceration was not responsible for that decline. Studies have shown no significant correlation between the increase in the prison population and the decrease in crime. 

Attitudes toward mass incarceration are changing. In an initiative endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recently voted to retroactively extend lighter sentencing guidelines to almost 46,000 prisoners serving time for federal drug crimes. At the state level, budget shortfalls have forced governors and lawmakers to take a look at their own policies. Some states have eased drug laws, decreased mandatory minimum sentences, or developed alternatives to incarceration. Even in the world’s prison capital, Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal passed modest measures to develop early release programs for non-violent drug offenders. The effort will contribute to lowering the number of those involved with “mass incarceration sentencing.”

So, what about Virginia? Virginia has the 14th highest incarceration rate of the 50 states. As a conservative state, Virginia has always been “tough on crime”; judges are tough on non-violent and drug offenders. Virginia has seen no efforts to curb mass incarceration comparable to those in Louisiana. The state still follows the abolition-of-parole law, in which all offenders must serve 85% of their sentence. Efforts are underway to lower the recidivism rate, but nothing is being done about mass incarceration.

That said, the McDonnell administration and now the McAuliffe administration have put forth efforts for offender rehabilitation and re-entry programming at a state level to prepare offenders for release from incarceration in hopes they will not recidivate – or come back to jail time and time again. A holistic statewide effort for alternatives, however, has yet to been seen.

By contrast, the City of Richmond has embraced alternatives to incarceration. The Sheriff’s office, City Council, the Mayor’s office, the Department of Justice Services and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office have collaborated to advance the drug court, the day reporting center, and the mental health docket. The drug court has been around for some time but it gaining traction. Some alternatives require a combination of jail time and treatment in the community; others are community based.

However, none of these alternatives affect people who were harshly sentenced before and still languish behind bars. Typically, these alternatives are applied to younger and first-time offenders. Folks we would refer to as “career criminals” are not benefiting. While their current crime might make them candidates for an alternative, prosecutors use their criminal history to try to convince judges to impose long, harsh sentences.

Looking specifically at the Richmond Sheriff’s office, where I also work full time, Sheriff C.T. Woody has always said we are locking up the wrong people. Addicts are getting stiff sentences even though addiction is a disease and incarcerating them for long periods of time does not work.  Drugs are rampant in prison, so use and addiction continues during lock-up. Even if offenders don’t use drugs while incarcerated, they are very likely to start using again when they get out, especially if they aren’t involved in a treatment program in jail. Side note: Many addicts overdose when they get out of jail because they use the same amount of drugs they did before they got locked up without realizing that their tolerance is no longer as high as it had been.

Prison is a breeding ground to create better criminals – to discuss how to get away crimes next time, to meet more drug contacts and street criminals, to fight and join gangs, without learning how to properly function in society. A letter I recently received from an offender in prison said ISIS is recruiting in prison. Continue reading

Mass Incarceration (Part I)

mass_incarcerationby Sarah Scarbrough

Are we using prison and jail too much? Do we put people behind bars with long sentences as a means to attempt to curb the crime rate? Many refer to this as mass incarceration.

First, though, let me first start by framing this and giving you a bit of context and background…

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – with over 2.2 million individuals behind bars today. This is about a 500 percent increase in the past 40 years. Further, even though the U.S. has only five percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. If those numbers were not alarming enough, there are another 4.75 million on some type of state supervision, such as probation or parole.

A disproportionate number of of people incarcerated are African-American males. Of the over two million incarcerated today, almost 40% are black men; one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars today. And, one-third of all black men will be incarcerated at some point of their life. Twenty percent of those incarcerated are Hispanic males.

While crime rates in the U.S. have consistently decreased for 24 years, the number of incarcerated people has continued to rise over the majority of that period. This is attributed to both more people being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and longer sentences. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has gradually decreased over the past two decades, the number of offenders serving life sentences has progressively risen. Today, one in nine prisoners are serving a life sentence.

So, the question is, why the unprecedented rise over the decades? The situation: mass incarceration. There are a few different factors associated with this – and it is not just non-violent drug offenders who are associated with mass incarceration, as many often say. There is much more to it.

Starting in the 1970’s, we began sending people convicted of rather minor crimes to prison for longer periods of time – this is where it all started.

Next, the war on drugs began, sending more and more to prison for longer periods of time.

Then, in the early to mid-90’s, we saw sentence increases for a wide variety of crimes, including life sentences and life without parole.

Establishing these efforts was packaged and sold as “getting tough on crime.” The fact that mass incarceration contributed to a social restructuring was not discussed at the time. Folks who suffered from mental health issues and survivors of trauma and abuse were just rounded up and sent into the system where they now eat up a tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars. Continue reading

Amherst Ordinance Violates Basic Human Right

ex-conby James A. Bacon

I have little sympathy for criminals. I don’t buy into the Officer Krupke school of thought that people “are depraved on account of they’re deprived.” And I’m all in favor in getting tough on crime. But I also believe that once a criminal has served his sentence , government policy should be geared to making it easier, not harder, for him to find a job and reintegrate into society.

Employers are understandably reluctant to hire ex-cons for certain types of jobs, with the consequence that many employment opportunities in government, health care, education and finance are off limits. For some felons, the only employment opportunity is creating one’s own job.

But now comes Amherst  County, enacting an ordinance in May, that allows the Commissioner of Revenue to “withdraw the privilege of doing business or exercising a trade, profession, occupation, vocation, calling or activity by revoking a business license” for anyone convicted of a felony or crime of moral turpitude.

As Eugene Volokh, a California law school professor observes, “This isn’t limited to particular job categories and particular criminal histories (e.g., barring people with child sex abuse records from working in day care centers, barring people with recent DUIs from driving trucks, and so on). If the Commissioner wishes, anyone with the specified kind of conviction could essentially be disqualified from pretty much any job in the County.”

“This sort of discretionary control over people’s lives is not how a free country should work,” writes Volokh.

I agree whole-heartedly. Indeed, I would go further. The idea expressed in the Amherst County ordinance that the right to self-employment is a “privilege” revocable by government is reprehensible in a free society. The ability to freely sell one’s labor and/or skills in the marketplace is, or should be, a foundational human right. I can’t imagine what the Amherst board supervisors were thinking when they enacted this ordinance, but they need to repeal it immediately. And if they don’t, some one needs to file a legal challenge. This is an embarrassment.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise)

Tough on Bad Drivers

wrecked_carThe latest from WalletHub… Virginia is the third strictest state in the country when dealing with high-risk drivers. The Old Dominion is consistently among the tougher states for Driving Under the Influence penalties and prevention, speeding enforcement and reckless driving enforcement.

For what it’s worth: Red states are slightly tougher on at-risk drivers than blue states.

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.