Category Archives: Crime and corrections

The Veiled Racism in the School Shooting Debate

U.S. Homicide rate… down. Graphic credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

An axiom of Bacon’s Rebellion is that while progressives (progs) and social justice warriors (SJWs) oppose racism in their rhetoric, they support policies that have the unintended result of being racist in effect. Nowhere is this clearer than in their approach to the criminal justice system, in which they decry the criminals as victims while ignoring the victims of their criminality. Today I will take my argument one step further and suggest that progs and SJWs betray a pattern of behavior that, if observed among conservatives and libertarians, they would tar as racist.

This truth was brought to my mind by the lead editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, which published graphs contrasting the decline of the U.S. homicide rate over the past three decades (despite an uptick in the past two years) with the decline in mass shootings.

School massacres and other mass shooting.

The thrust of the T-D editorial was to observe that once upon a time, when access to guns was far easier than it is today, there were far fewer school mass shootings. Clearly, something is going on that has nothing to do with guns.

I would suggest that that “something” is a cultural/psychological phenomenon connected to white male alienation and mental illness, the spread of the Columbine-massacre template among disturbed teenage whites, mass media hysteria that guarantees maximum exposure of every shooting, and the rise of social media creating a platform for the killers to create manifestos explaining and justifying their rage. But that’s a side observation.

The larger point is this: National U.S. media inundate the public with coverage of mass shootings, even though they account for an almost trivial amount of total homicides. Why is that? Could the reason be that the overwhelming majority of all homicide victims are black, brown, or lower-income whites while the overwhelming majority of school shooting victims are white — just like the Mika Brzezinkis, Joe Scarboroughs, Rachel Maddows, Chris Cuomos and New York Times editorial writers? Could the reason be that the overwhelming majority of homicide victims live in neighborhoods where elite opinion makers never set foot, therefore elite opinion makers do not share the same sense of alarm as other Americans about criminal violence, while school shootings occur in places where the victims “look like them”?

Consider this graph from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Blacks are about 30% more likely to be victims of violent crimes than whites. Of course, a large percentage of violent crimes within any racial/ethnic category are committed by domestic partners or other acquaintances. Exclude those categories, and the rate of violent-crime victimization of upper-income, college-educated whites is very low. Upper middle-class progs and SJWs don’t worry much about assaults by domestic partners, gambling buddies, drug suppliers, or random street muggings. To them, the perceived threat of school shootings looms larger. As far as black victims of violent crime… meh. Inner city crime can be written off as an outcomes of institutional racism anyway — not their fault.

There is a fine balancing act here. The U.S. criminal justice system arguably does incarcerate too many people, and it arguably does need an overhaul. Virginia does an exemplary job of recycling jail and prison inmates back into the community — we have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country — but we could always do more. And we are. As an example: Yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam signed bipartisan legislation raising the threshold for a felony larceny from $200 to $500 — an action that hopefully will have the effect of reducing jail populations without increasing the incidence of petty crime.

But we need to be careful. According to the “broken windows” theory of criminality, a tolerance of misdemeanors leads to more minor crimes. A tolerance of minor crimes leads to more major crimes. The victims of those crimes come disproportionately from minority and lower-income neighborhoods. While these victims receive attention from local news media, they warrant almost zero from the national media that exert such a profound influence on the public policy agenda. If all crime victims were given the same platforms to express their fear and frustration as, say, the Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivors, the public policy debate in the United States would look very different indeed.

“Torture” and “Dehumanization” in Virginia’s Prisons?

The Virginia Department of Corrections has won kudos from the Obama administration Department of Justice and the Southern Legislative Conference for limiting the use of long-term “restrictive housing,” the administrative euphemism for solitary confinement. In 2011 the maximum security Red Onion prison in Southwest Virginia held 511 prisoners in long-term restrictive housing. Today, the number is fewer than 100.

But that’s not good enough for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union which, in a letter to Governor Ralph Northam, asked the state to curtail the practice even more. Reports Frank Green with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

 “Isolating someone not just from their family and community but placing them in a cell the size of a parking space for 22-24 hours a day and depriving them of human contact, natural light, exercise and other out-of-cell time, and other stimuli, causes extreme suffering and mental illness,” wrote [Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia].

“No one, regardless of their crime, should be tortured and dehumanized in this way,” she added.

Let’s parse this. Roughly 100 of the most dangerous of the 30,000 prisoners in Virginia’s penitentiary system — one in 300 — are held in solitary confinement at any given time. Almost all of them, I’ll wager, have been convicted of violent crimes. Almost all of them, I’ll bet, have what we might call anger management issues. In all likelihood, every single one has gotten into altercations inside prison. These guys are either (a) considered a danger to other inmates, or (b) live in fear of other inmates. Still, they are let out of the cells up to two hours a day for exercise, recreation and showers. This is dehumanizing? This is torture?

I’m sorry, but this is the kind of rhetoric that gives liberals a bad name.

The ACLU study quotes the inmates themselves as evidence that disciplinary charges are sometimes inflated or false, and that solitary confinement is not limited to situations in which it is essential for reasons of safety. Right. Like violent criminals never lie.

OK, OK, sometimes they may be telling the truth. Perhaps I’ve watched too many prison movies, but I’ll grant that prison guards may not always be the finest specimens of humanity themselves and may sometimes abuse their power. The appropriate response is to correct injustices when they occur rather than impose blanket policies, as the ACLU advocates, such as using solitary only in “rare and exceptional cases,” limiting the length to 15 days, and banning the practice entirely for prisoners with mental illness.

In a free and open society, it’s a good thing to know that someone like the ACLU is looking out for the rights of prison inmates. Abuses sometimes do occur, and they sometimes do get covered up. That’s the nature of things. Prisoners need an outside channel like the ACLU to report wrong-doing. But this time, it sounds to me that, the ACLU has gone way overboard.

As a frivolous aside, I’ve occasionally thought what it would be like to be imprisoned in a maximum security facility with scary inmates and I”ve wondered how I would survive. My first thought: Do whatever it takes to be put into solitary. I’d far rather live in confinement than become some big hairy dude’s prison bitch.

Give me a stack of books and an hour a day in the exercise yard, and I’d do just fine.

Time to Reform Practice of Cash Bonds

Earlier this month Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring announced that his office would no longer recommend requiring cash bond for people charged with crimes. Instead, prosecutors would recommend defendants either be held in jail or be given their freedom until the trial. Too many people are unable to raise cash for the bond, and Herring is concerned that the practice needlessly stuffs the city jail with poor defendants who may be innocent and pose no threat to the community.

Herring is not a social justice warrior. He’s a prosecutor who takes seriously his obligation to put bad guys in jail. But he’s also sensitive to the effect that the criminal justice system has on poor African-Americans. Holding someone in gaol until his (or her, but mostly his) trial interrupts his employment, disrupts his ability to meet his financial obligations, and deprives him of his freedom. The practice also imposes a burden on taxpayers to house, feed, and guard people who have yet to be convicted of a crime.

If the Richmond metro area were undergoing a horrendous crime wave, I might be inclined to err on the side of public safety. But crime continues to decline. As we approach end of April, Police Chief Alfred Durham reports heartening statistics, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Seven fewer homicides, 23 fewer people shot, 42 fewer robberies, 196 fewer burglaries, and an overall 6 percent drop in violent and property crimes compared to the same point last year. This would seem to be a propitious time to implement reforms to the criminal justice system, if it can be shown that reforms are needed.

When thinking about the causes of poverty, I find it useful to adopt two analytical frameworks: individual and institutional. Examining poverty at the level of the individual, we can see that some people are poor as a consequence of poor decisions they have made: They dropped out of school, they got pregnant before they got married, they abused alcohol or drugs, they committed crimes, they were unreliable employees, or they spent more money than they made and put themselves onto a treadmill of debt. And we can also see that institutional forces often work against them. Their schools were terrible. Politicians were corrupt. Jobs were scarce. They ran afoul of a criminal justice system that stacked the odds against them.

If we want to address poverty in Virginia and create a society where people can rise above their circumstances, then we need to adopt both frames of reference, Among other things, that means giving a closer look at the criminal justice system. I have written in the past about how jails and prisons can ease the re-entry of inmates into society by making sure they have such basic job-finding tools as drivers licenses and identity cards. And a strong case can be made that they system of cash bond disproportionately burdens the poor.

Herring’s order to stop recommending cash bond is just the first step, argues Adeola Ogunkeyede, director of the Civil Rights & Racial Injustice Program. While prosecutors may stop recommending cash bond, they aren’t always present when bail decisions are made — magistrates often make bail decisions when prosecutors aren’t around. Likewise, judges can override prosecutors’ recommendations.

In a Richmond Times-Dispatch column today, she writes: “Given this context it remains to be seen whether Herring’s decision to stop his prosecutors from recommending cash bond will reduce the number of people locked in jail pretrial in Richmond.” She concludes:

Moving forward, we encourage Herring to join advocates and communities disproportionately impacted by unjust bail practices — predominantly low-income communities of color — in championing measures that would unequivocally put Richmond on track to lead the way on meaningful bail reform in Virginia.

From what I gather, Herring has already joined the movement. Her remarks would be better aimed at magistrates and judges. More critically, I would like to see Ogunkeyede acknowledge that there is a balancing act between protecting the rights of the accused and protecting the community from the depredations of crime. As social justice warriors often seem to forget, “communities of color” are disproportionately victims of the criminals who live in their midst.

Still, all things considered, it is a fundamental principle of American justice that people are presumed innocent until found guilty. We should explore ways to keep not-convicted people out of jail, especially those accused of non-violent crimes who pose no threat to the public. Herring’s announcement is an important step forward and Ogunkeyede’s column is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.

Wow, that Stop-and-Frisk Policy Sure Looks Suspicious. Let’s Stop and Frisk It.

Citing Charlottesville Police Department data, the Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia’s student newspaper, has found that African-Americans are stopped and frisked at a rate nine times greater than whites.

The statistical report from the 2017 calendar year detailed that of the 173 total recorded stop incidents, 70 percent of the individuals were black. Of the 125 stop incidents with search-and-frisk, 91 of the individuals  — or 73 percent — were black.  According to 2016 estimates of Charlottesville demographics, only 19 percent of the City identifies as black or African American.

Predictably, Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he found the statistics “alarming.”

Don Gathers, a deacon at the First Baptist Church and founder of Charlottesville’s chapter of Black Lives Matter — said that stop and frisk is a racist policy: “[Stop and Frisk] is a very race-based, racist, failed policy,” he said. “[The police] get … returns from the instability that they create in the community.”

My first reaction (to borrow a line from the Instapundit blog): Why are municipalities run by progressives such cesspools of discrimination?

My second reaction: Maybe there is a problem, but I’m not going to believe it on the authority of the Cavalier Daily, the ACLU or Black Lives Matter. Here’s the obvious counter: If African-Americans in Charlottesville are nine times to be guilty of crimes as whites, then the stop-and-frisk disparity is not unreasonable.

However, the Cavalier Daily did present evidence suggesting that the disparity was real, though not as bad as a nine-to-one ratio would indicate.

In 2016, a more comprehensive report revealed that out of the 97 detentions, 74 of the cases involved black individuals, but only 15 — or about 17 percent — of the individuals were arrested or served summons. Comparatively, out of the 35 white people that were stopped in 2016, 11 — roughly 31 percent —  of them were arrested or summoned to court.

In either case, a minority of those frisked were worthy of arrest. But blacks were only half as likely to be arrested or summoned — a big disparity, to be sure, but far short of a nine-to-one ratio. What we don’t know is if there are legitimate reasons for that smaller disparity. The assumption of racism is often unwarranted. Conversely, the fact that assumptions of racism are often unwarranted does not mean that they are always unwarranted. This may be such a case.

“Another important step is to dig deeper into the data,” said City Manager Maurice Jones. “We’ve got a group of folks who will be doing that with the City Manager’s Office, the police department, the City Attorney’s Office [and] the Commonwealth Attorney’s office as well and getting a better understanding of some of the issues associated with [the data].”

When stop-and-frisk was a hot controversy in New York City a few years back, I sympathized with the police and those who argued that eliminating the policy would make it more difficult to combat crime. I did not think it would end well when Mayor Bill DeBlasio ended the practice. As it turns out, the New York City crime rate has continued to decline. It’s not often that I find myself changing my mind about left-wing politicians, but in this instance DeBlasio proved correct. Stop-and-frisk was causing unnecessary resentment among minorities, and police have other crime-fighting tools that work as well or even better.

Bacon’s bottom line: Let’s see if Charlottesville’s police can provide a convincing defense of the racial disparity in stop-frisks. If they can’t, the practice should end, and the police should devise other tactics for fighting crime.

Pulitzer Recognition for Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out Articles

Congratulations to Tim Eberly with the Virginian-Pilot for winning recognition as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his investigative reporting on Virginia’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out law. He was up against some stiff competition — the Washington Post won the award for its investigation of Senate candidate Roy Moore’s history of sexual harassment of teenage girls.

Here’s the kick-off of Eberly’s Nov. 17, 2017, story:

Virginia bureaucrats are keeping nonviolent convicts in prison longer than murderers

Snagged by a short-lived state law, some Virginia inmates have served more time behind bars than many murderers, even though they harmed no one in their crimes and had never been in prison before.

In some cases, their prison terms will stretch far longer than those of convicts who fatally shot, stabbed or bludgeoned people, a Virginian-Pilot investigation has found.

This disparity stems from a 1982 “three-strikes” law that, largely during a 12-year period, has caught inmates in its clutches for decades.

Young men barely old enough to vote went from first-time offender to three-striker in one swift motion. They weren’t the career criminals for which three-strikes laws are generally written. More often than not, their crimes were committed in a single spree. And plenty of them had little or no prior criminal history.

Virginia enacted the law when the state, like the rest of the U.S., was awash in a rising tide of crime and the public was sick and tired of convicted criminals being released back onto the streets with a judicial slap of the wrist. At the time, the idea of three-strikes-and-you’re-out seemed to me like a good idea. And one could argue (although many will disagree) that the law did help stem crime by the expedient of taking criminals out of circulation.

But as Eberly revealed, the law was arbitrary, and it created new injustices. Now that crime rates have fallen dramatically and the populace is no longer gripped by fear, we are pained far more by those injustices than we once were.

One Man’s “Domestic Terrorist” Is Another Man’s Social Justice Warrior

Does left-wing violence constitute “domestic terrorism,” too?

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News has teamed with the Virginia Attorney General’s Office to add “domestic terrorism” to the state’s list of criminal charges. Her bill, HB 1601, would make it illegal in certain cases for people associated with domestic terrorist groups to hold a meeting, reports the Daily Press.

Price refused to comment for the Daily Press story, but AG spokesman Michael Kelly said the office has been working on the bill since the United the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, where counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed when Nazi sympathizer James Field Jr. drove a vehicle into a crowd. Field has been charged with first-degree murder.

“Obviously that was a real wake-up call and a moment that made it crystal clear that Virginia needs to take seriously the threat posed by extremist organizations and especially white supremacist organizations,” said Kelly. “We want to make sure that local law enforcement and state law enforcement have the tools to keep Virginians safe from that kind of violence.”

But I can’t help but wonder if the AG’s office is more concerned about violence stemming from some sources than others. The “domestic terrorism” charge applies to acts perpetrated because of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, or that [are] committed for the purpose of restraining an individual from exercising his rights under the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or of the United States.”

Those qualifiers explicitly protect minorities against Nazis, Klansmen and other right-wing extremists, which is fine. But does it apply to Antifa or other groups that use violence to shut down the objects of left-wing hatred and loathing such as, say, rallies of Trump supporters or conservative speakers on college campuses? Presumably, Trump supporters enjoy a constitutional right to freedom of assembly, so Antifa violence might warrant a domestic terrorism charge. But does a conservative speaker have a constitutional right to deliver a speech on a college campus? Much trickier question.

I’m not clear why such a law is needed in the first place. The City of Charlottesville has charged Fields with first degree murder. Does the Commonwealth of Virginia require another law to put him away for the rest of his life? I can’t shake the suspicion that Price’s bill, if enacted into law, will be applied selectively against those whose political beliefs the Attorney General or his successors find most odious.

“A significant failure that has diminished the City’s faith in its elected leaders”

I haven’t had time to do anything more than scan Timothy Heaphy’s report on the tragic events in Charlottesville on Aug. 11-12, but I’ve seen enough to know that it provides a sober, just-the-facts-ma’am narrative of events leading up to the Unite the Right rally, a blow-by-blow account of the rally itself, and critical context to evaluate the performance of both politicians and police. A formidable research effort, the 207-page report represents a ddraws upon interviews with hundreds of participants, hundreds of thousands of documents, thousands of photographs and many hours of video.

I extract some of Heaphy’s key conclusions about what went right and what went wrong at the United the Right rally. (Most of what follows is quoted verbatim, although I have made occasional modifications for purposes of readability.)

What Went Right

Despite the presence of firearms and angry confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters, no person was shot and no significant property damage occurred.

The Charlottesville Fire Department and UVA Health System had effective operations plans that allowed rescue personnel to extract and treat a large number of injured persons within minutes of a violent attack.

Law enforcement planning and response was informed by thorough, accurate intelligence before and after the event.

What Went Wrong

The Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) did not seek input from law enforcement personnel experienced in handling similar events, and the CPD did not provide adequate training or information to officers in advance of the event.

The City of Charlottesville waited too long to request the specialized assistance of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The Charlottesville City Council unduly interfered with operational planning by directing that the event be moved to McIntire Park just days in advance.

Rather than micromanage professional staff and second-guess their decisions, Council should have helped the community understand the rules that govern these events. Rather than overruling law enforcement and forcing them to prepare for a more complex event, Council should have helped the community understand the public safety challenge and anticipate the law enforcement response to the event. Instead of working as a team, City staff and City Council worked at cross purposes and stoked public uncertainty about the event. This was a significant failure that has diminished the City’s faith in its elected leaders.

The timing of the decision to move the rally to McIntire Park was initiated much too late. The City of Charlottesville did not provide adequate information to the public about plans for the event. City planners mistakenly believed that they could not limit the possession of certain items used as weapons at the Unite the Right event.

The owners of private property adjacent to Emancipation Park — the Central Branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library and Christ Episcopal Church — refused police access to their facilities, which hampered law enforcement response.

The University of Virginia Police Department refused multiple offers of mutual aid assistance from the Charlottesville Policy Department, resulting in violent encounters that emboldened protesters at the Unite the Right rally.

The Charlottesville Police Department implemented a flawed operational plan that failed to protect public safety on August. 12. Specifically, it failed to ensure separation between Alt-Right protesters and organized counter-protesters. The CPD was insufficiently equipped to respond to mass unrest, and it failed to intervene in violent disorders and did not respond to requests for assistance.

The Virginia State Police directed its personnel to remain behind barriers within Emancipation Park.

It is remarkable that VSP officials attended weeks of planning sessions with CPD and weighed in on CPD’s operational plans without ever specifying in writing or verbally that VSP did not expect its officers to police serious incidents of lawbreaking by participants. Their inaction in the face of violence left CPD unprepared.

Upon declaration of an unlawful assembly, protesters were pushed directly toward counter-protesters without separation. Continue reading

Business As Usual in the Old Dominion: Gridlock, Greed and Confusion

After LaHood report, more squabbling over Metro’s future. In the wake of recommendations by former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are edging toward compromises that would reform the ailing mass transit system’s governance system and shore up its financing. LaHood’s proposal to shrink the Metro board from six seats to five is drawing some bipartisan support, and legislation in Congress is being drafted, reports the Washington Post. But suburban jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland, worried about losing their voice on the board, are unhappy with the plan. Also, while LaHood affirmed the need for an additional $500 million a year to work down a massive maintenance backlog, he did not propose how that massive sum might be funded — mainly because there is no consensus for a regional sales tax, the main proposal on the table. Also unaddressed is the not-insignificant matter that Metro really needs an additional $1.5 billion a year, not $500 million, to fix its problems.

Good business if you can get it. (Alternative headline: First, kill all the lawyers.) Richmond has emerged as the preferred venue for bankruptcy trials, reports the New York Times. Toys “R” Us, Gymboree, a West Virginia coal company, and a Pennsylvania fracking company all have filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court there. The federal district court’s so-called rocket docket resolves cases swiftly. Also, precedents in the court’s legal record make it easier for companies to walk away from union contracts. But perhaps the biggest draw is the ability of bankruptcy lawyers to charge outrageous fees — as much as $1,745 per hour. Lawyers advising troubled companies, writes the newspaper, tend to gravitate toward courts that approve higher fees.

Dazed and confused — but mostly confused. A state review of the police response to the chaotic white nationalist protest in Charlottesville in August describes a confused command structure, a breakdown in communication, and uncertainty among officers about the “rules of engagement” with protesters, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The review, led by James W. Baker, a consultant with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, did not address whether or not police were ordered to “stand down” in the face of escalating violence between white supremacists and leftists. Nor did it assign responsibility for the confusion to anyone in the Charlottesville city administration.

Second Year Running: Lowest Recidivism of Any State

Source: Virginia Department of Corrections

When Virginia ranked last year as the state with the lowest recidivism rate in the country, it wasn’t a fluke. The Old Dominion has repeated the performance.  Of the 11,576 offenders released from prison in 2013, only 2,588 wound up back in jail by 2016. The percentage of felons readmitted to state-responsible incarceration within three years was 22.4%. 

“I am proud of the work my administration has done to pursue policies and initiatives that rehabilitate incarcerated individuals, helping them develop the tools and skills they need to be successful,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe in a press release. “A low recidivism rate means fewer victims, it means safer communities, and it means we are returning offenders to their communities better prepared to be productive, law-abiding Virginians.”

Continues the press release:

Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) tailors its programming and supervision to address each offender’s criminogenic risks and needs in keeping with the agency’s mission to enhance the quality of life in the Commonwealth by improving public safety. About ninety-three percent of individuals incarcerated in Virginia will one day be released back into their communities.

“We are in the business of helping people to be better,” said Virginia Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke. “Virginia’s leading rate is due to the successful reentry programming and treatment offered by the Department of Corrections during an offender’s incarceration, and the effective supervision in the community after release through VADOC Probation & Parole.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia should be proud of its record of low recidivism. Unless people are monkeying around with the numbers (a possibility never to be dismissed), we have the best prison programs of the 45 states surveyed for reintegrating felons into society. (I have written in the past about the special efforts made to ensure that inmates get drivers’ licenses and ID cards immediately upon release from prison, as well as programs in local jails to kick substance abuse, learn anger management, and master other life skills.)

However, I have to call McAuliffe for the boastfulness of his press release. The prisoners alluded to in the 2016 data were released from prison in 2013. McAuliffe didn’t set foot in the Governor’s Mansion until 2014. Whoever deserves credit for their low rate of recidivism, it wasn’t McAuliffe, it was the McDonnell administration. Hopefully, the McAuliffe team built upon the good work of its predecessors. But we won’t really know until McAuliffe is out of office.

Plugging “Mercy” into the Judicial System

O. Randolph Rollins, founder of Drive to Work.

Just when it looked like the country was so locked in partisan gridlock that no one could agree about anything, along came the Republican-dominated General Assembly, the Democratic governor, and the Virginia Supreme Court to put into place reforms that make it easier for people owing court fines to keep their drivers licenses and continue driving to work.

More than 600,000 Virginians have had their drivers’ licenses suspended for failure to pay court fines, and nearly 200,000 have had them suspended for drug offenses unrelated to driving. The penalties, which arose from war-against-drugs legislation in the 1980s, trapped people in a cycle of poverty. But over the past decade, the unintended consequences have grown too big to ignore.

As House Speaker William H. Howell described it during a panel discussion at the annual banquet of the Drive to Work non-profit Monday, the suspension of drivers licenses for failure to pay court costs is reminiscent of 18th-century debtor’s prison. If someone can’t pay his court debts, he can’t drive. If he can’t drive, he can’t work. If he can’t work, he can’t pay his court fines. And if he gets caught driving repeatedly with an unsuspended license, he goes to jail… where he can’t work or repay fines.

As it became increasingly clear that the license-suspension penalty was adding immeasurably to the hardship of poor Virginians — an awareness raised largely by the Drive to Work program — a bipartisan consensus emerged that the system needed to change. After picking at the edges of the problem for several years, the General Assembly passed six bills in the 2017 session addressing the drive-to-work issue.

Perhaps the most significant reform was the measure that gives judges more leeway to consider an individual’s circumstances before suspending his or her driver’s license. A law enacted in 2015 conveyed a policy message to the judiciary that they should apply the law more flexibility, but provided few specifics. The Judicial Council, which is charged with overseeing the rules and procedures of Virginia’s judicial system, issued guidelines to local judges on how to apply the law. In 2016, the chief justice of the Supreme Court appointed a panel to devise “rules of law” that carried greater weight than the guidelines. Early this year, Del. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, introduced a bill that would embed the rules of court into state statute.

Speaking in the panel discussion, Loupassi described how he thought his bill had “zero percent” chance of passing until Governor Terry McAuliffe and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran made it an issue. Before he knew it, other key legislators fell in line. “It’s a great thing,” he said. “There is something inherently good and positive about people working.”

Associate Supreme Court Justice William C. Mims praised the bipartisan nature of the legislation. The reforms have occurred the right way, he said. They weren’t imposed by judicial decree but emerged organically from the interaction between the General Assembly, the Supreme Court and the McAuliffe administration, which added a key provision to the bill.

“The system worked, and it worked for all the right reasons,” he told Bacon’s Rebellion. The courts “plugged mercy into the equation.”

Related laws enacted this year created a uniform set of standards for people with suspended licenses to repay their court fees, and gave judges more discretion not to suspend the driver’s license of some one convicted of a first-time marijuana possess in offenses unrelated to their driving.

In a keynote speech, McAuliffe framed the drive-to-work initiatives as part of a larger effort to make it easier for felons to return to productive lives after their release from prison. He cited other programs such as transferring youths from central state-run facilities to locally based programs near their homes, cutting the cost for prisoners to make phone calls and maintain contact with family members, and starting programs that help felons get their state ID cards and drivers’ licenses before their release from prison. It’s no accident, he added, that Virginia has the lowest recidivism rate in the country.

“We want everyone back in society,” he said. “We want to help their re-entry. We want them providing for their families, and paying taxes.”

While great progress has been made, O Randolph Rollins, founder of Drive to Work, said more remains to be done. Looking ahead, he wants to decouple drug convictions from the loss of driving privileges. The law enacted in the 2017 session, which relaxed the penalty for marijuana possession, was a “baby step” in the right direction, he told Bacon’s Rebellion. He wants to break the link between all drugs — even including cocaine, heroin and meth — and driving privileges.

Roughly 185,000 Virginians have had their licenses suspended for drug offenses, he said. Only about 1,000 of those offenses were tied to driving, such as driving under the influence of drugs. If lawmakers want to put drug abusers in jail or go to treatment, that’s a different debate. But it makes no sense to take away their right to drive, he said. Taking away their license does little to deter them from abusing drugs. But it does interfere with their ability to make a living and support a family.