Category Archives: Race and race relations

Another Example of Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Jennifer Doleac

Jennifer Doleac

by James A. Bacon

Last year Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order to “ban the box” prohibiting employers from asking job seekers about their criminal history at the initial job stage. The goal was to “remove unnecessary obstacles” to felons seeking employment after incarceration. How could one object? Once felons have paid their debt to society, we should ease their transition back into the workforce, right?

It turns out that things don’t always work the way we expect them to. From the Daily Progress:

Research published recently by Jennifer Doleac, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that ban the box policies actually lowered the probability of employment by 5.1 percent for young, low-skilled black men and 2.9 percent for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.

According to Doleac, who conducted the study with the University of Oregon’s Benjamin Hansen, the lowered chance for employment comes from the unwillingness by employers to take chances on hiring someone without knowledge of their potential criminal history.

“Simply taking away information about whether someone has a record doesn’t stop employers from caring about someone’s criminal background,” Doleac said. “It just leaves them to guess based on the remaining information they do have.”

All too often, that “remaining information” is age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. (Hat tip: John Butcher)

Bacon’s bottom line: Society is extraordinarily complex. Political ideologies (both on the left and the right) provide simplified models for how society works. Often those simplified models overlook important linkages and feedback loops that lead to very different results than anticipated. Individuals and private entities can quickly alter their behavior to adjust to reality; government adjusts much more slowly, if at all.

Will McAuliffe rescind his “ban the box” order? I’m not betting on it. The social engineer’s response to problems created by a law or regulation is to “fix” the emergent problem by enacting more laws and regulations… thus creating new problems. 

It’s fine to try new ideas, but we have to pay attention to whether they work or not. If they don’t, we need to reconsider them. Good intentions are not enough.

Playing the Racism Card… Just Pathetic

howard_myers

Mayor Howard Myers. Photo credit: WTVR

In other Petersburg-related follies… Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers has told fellow City Council members that the attacks on his leadership are motivated by racism and partisanship.

“I will as a representative of Ward 5 and as major duly to my right hand, serve the public without blemish and from scare tactics from a few racists[s] and Republican supporters,” he wrote in an Aug. 11 email that he asked the city clerk to share with other council members, reports the Richmond-Times Dispatch.

Dude, you presided over the worst financial meltdown of a Virginia locality probably since the Great Depression and you think your critics are motivated by racism? Under your watch, the city is facing a current-year budget gap of $12 million (nearly 20% of General Fund revenue) on top of $19 million dollars of unpaid bills, and you have conceded in unguarded remarks that you had no idea how this all happened, yet you expect anyone to believe that the people who are unhappy about it are being partisan in their attacks?

Do you know how totally pathetic that is? Not only pathetic, but in this racially polarized era, wildly irresponsible?

As I understand from the news coverage, Petersburg’s five City Council members are all African-American while many of the citizens who get irate and engage in shouting matches with you during council sessions are mostly white. Yeah, I suppose one reason that they’re argumentative is that they’re racist. But there’s another possible explanation: They’re pissed off at how you ran the city into the ground!

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.

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.

Map of the Day: Decline in Teen Birth Rate

Source: StatChat blog

Source: StatChat blog

The fertility rate for U.S. women reached an all-time low in 2015. All told, there have been 3.4 million fewer births since 2007 than would have occurred had fertility rates not declined, writes Hamilton Lombard in the StatChat blog.

There are reasons to be concerned. Fewer births means fewer Americans entering the workforce, fewer workers paying into Medicare and Social Security, and fewer taxpayers to support the swelling national debt, which now stands at $19 trillion and counting.

But Lombard finds a silver lining. A big one. The decline in births is concentrated among teens. That decline, he argues, is tied to the increase in the high school graduation rates and college attendance as teens put off starting families until they have earned a high school and/or college degree.

Teenage pregnancy was once fairly common and even socially acceptable, particularly after World War II, when there were plenty of well-paying jobs available that did not require a high school diploma, much less a college degree. As these low-skill jobs began to disappear, the teenage birth rate started to fall. By the mid-2000s the U.S. teen birth rate had declined by 50 percent since 1960.

Insofar as inter-generational poverty in America is demographic in nature — poor teens giving birth to children and raising them in poverty before acquiring skills needed to rise out of poverty — declining fertility is a very good thing.

The national trends do not play out evenly. As can be seen in Lombard’s map above, the change was dramatic in some Virginia jurisdictions between 20007 and 2014 and far less noticeable in others.

In the City of Richmond, the birth of children to teens fell from 470 to 149 over that period — an astonishing decline. The overwhelming number of those 331 never-born children would have been raised in poverty and at high risk of never rising out of it. By contrast, the decline was far more modest in rural localities of Southwest Virginia.

Here is the decline in teen births between 2007 and 2011 in Virginia broken down by race, according to Centers for Disease Control data:

All races — 28% decline
Non-Hispanic whites — 20%
Non-Hispanic blacks — 29%
Hispanics — 50%

And here is the 2011 birth rate per 1,000 teenagers aged 15-19:

All Races — 24.5 births
Non-Hispanic whites — 19.4
Non-Hispanic blacks — 37.4
Hispanics — 36.9

— JAB

A Different Kind of Police-Kill-Unarmed-Black-Youth Story

Brown and Cobb

Paterson Brown Jr. and David L. Cobb. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County has its own cop-shooting-and-killing-an-unarmed-black-youth story, but it has generated little controversy — presumably because the police officer was himself black, thus side-stepping the racist-white-cop narrative. It is instructive to read the account of court testimony in the policeman’s trial to get a sense of the ambiguous situations in which police find themselves forced to make life-and-death decisions.

Here are the basic facts based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s coverage of the trial: David L. Cobb, an off-duty, 47-year-old Chesterfield police officer, was getting his girlfriend’s car washed at the Better Vision Detail & Car Spa on Midlothian Turnpike when 18-year-old Paterson Brown Jr. inexplicably hopped into the vehicle. Cobb confronted Brown, struggling to open the door as Brown tried to close it. Observing that the teenager was acting strangely and incoherently, apparently from drug use, Cobb announced that he was a police officer and warned him four times to stay still. At one point, Brown leaned back and said, “I don’t f— with cops” but he did not comply. When Brown moved his left hand across his waist, Cobb believed that he was reaching for a gun. He shot the youth in the pelvis, severing a vital artery and killing him. As it turned out the youth was unarmed.

The prosecutor argued that Brown’s act of reaching across the waist “does not give you the right to use deadly force.”

But David Baugh, a black attorney who has represented five other Richmond-area officers in use-of-force killings, countered that every officer (1) is responsible for stopping a crime when he or she sees it, and (2) fears for his or her life when approaching a vehicle.

“He doesn’t have a right to walk away,” Baugh said. “He took an oath. It’s his moral duty to stick his nose in it.” To convict Cobb, he told the jury, prosecutors “have to convince you there’s no reason to be scared.” Brown set the tone with his bizzare behavior, glaring at Cobb after the officer spotted him inside the car. “Is he reasonable to be fearful? Yes. [Officers] all know.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Police officers have every reason to fear that young men acting strangely and actively resisting direct commands might pull out a gun and shoot. Forty-five law enforcement personnel, two of them in Virginia, have been killed in the line of duty so far this year. Cobb had to make a split-second decision. He made the wrong decision. Indeed, Cobb was so remorseful that he broke down sobbing while testifying in court and the judge had to suspend proceedings for ten minutes while he composed himself. But Cobb did not create the situation. Brown did. And, while his death was tragic and out of proportion to anything he did wrong, he brought it upon himself.

After a two-decade decline, violent crime is on the upswing. Ironically, most of it is black-on-black crime — a perverse result of the “Ferguson effect” in which police dial back their interventions and the Black Lives Matter movement which has encouraged black youths to distrust police and resist arrest. To revive a phrase from the 1960s, I’m on the side of “law and order.” If I were on Cobb’s jury, I would not vote to convict. And, if the T-D‘s account is fair summary of the facts presented, I’ll bet his jury won’t either.

McAuliffe’s Dangerous Game

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, when he helped run L. Douglas Wilder’s history-making gubernatorial campaign, Paul Goldman was regarded as a progressive voice in Virginia politics. If he writes many more op-eds like the one published Sunday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he could well become anathema to progressives. Not because he has changed his principles, mind you, but because progressives have come to toss around accusations of racism with such reckless abandon.

Goldman’s topic was Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring full civil and voting rights to 206,000 felons convicted of both violent and non-violent crimes. The Richmond attorney and political activist makes two critical points that dovetail with my critique of contemporary progressivism.

One is that McAuliffe’s defenders make unsupported accusations of racism and discrimination that only “make it harder for those fighting for honest change.” Specifically, Goldman tackles the notion that Article II, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution — “no person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority” — was intentionally written to disenfranchise African-Americans.

To the contrary, notes Goldman, disenfranchisement of felons dates back to colonial times when only white men were allowed to vote. Moreover, Virginia civil rights legend Oliver Hill reviewed and approved the provision for inclusion in the 1971 Virginia constitution.

A second point is that the people who get so agitated about the injustice done to felons are remarkably quiet about the injustices the felons inflicted upon their victims. While felons in Virginia are disproportionately African-American, so are crime victims.

As Goldman writes, “For the government to suggest a victim or loved one is anti-black because she opposes automatic restoration [of civil rights] without any showing of contrition is unjustified. It demeans the victim.”

A strong case can be made that the process of restoring rights to non-violent felons should be made easier — no individual petition necessary. But blanket restoration for violent felons without giving the victim an opportunity for input or any requirement for the predator to show contrition should be prohibited, Goldman writes. “The petitioning process must not itself be punitive. Yet it can’t be pro forma.”

Lastly, Goldman didn’t make this point but I will: Finding the proper balance for restoring felon rights is not the sole prerogative of the governor. McAuliffe needs to engage in give and take with the legislature. Sadly, the rule of law is regarded among political elites as increasingly optional — something to be enjoined when they can harness it to advance their aims and sidestepped when it cannot. A couple of years back, I said that progressives should be cautious with the precedents they set — just imagine how worried they would be if Sarah Palin were elected president with the power to re-write laws through executive decree. Now they face an even more terrifying prospect — an imperial presidency run by Donald Trump, the man for whom everything is negotiable and “so sue me” is a business best practice. Granting presidents and governors power to re-write laws at will cuts both ways.

Update: General Assembly Republicans are filing suit to halt enforcement of McAuliffe’s executive order.