Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Bacon Bits: Restored Licenses; Dominion’s Millstone Plant; RGGI

Organic Carbon Capture Device

Wait.  How many suspended licenses? Today’s Virginia Mercury has one of those stories that raises more questions than it answers, this one about the suspended driving license issue. My warning that there would be massive lines at DMV were groundless because, hey, these people still have their actual licenses.  DMV never got them back or ordered them destroyed. Do you think that might have contributed to the decision so many debtors made to keep driving and blow off the collection efforts? And while DMV reports 627,000 licenses eligible for restoration, it turns out DMV has addresses for fewer than half that number, only 246,000. You can discern the problem may be less severe than the hype using the (excellent, by the way) interactive map included with the Virginia Mercury story. You will note only a handful of localities show a large percentage of suspended licenses (in Richmond City almost ten percent, but in most one to two.) That also raises questions about the reported numbers. Maybe there’s another explanation for the discrepancy between licenses and addresses?  Continue reading

Virginia’s Decline in Crime

Source: Demographics Research Group, StatChat blog

One of the advantages of living in Virginia is that citizens are less likely than other Americans on average to become crime victims. The rate of violent crimes (seen above ) is about half the national average, according to data published today on the StatChat blog based on 2017 FBI crime data. The rate for property crimes is only three-quarters of the national average. That’s pretty impressive considering that Virginia’s demographics come pretty close to matching the national profile. The Old Dominion is doing something right.

Not that you’d know it by reading Charlottesville’s Daily Progress today. Continue reading

Courts Authorizing “Reverse Location” Warrants in Virginia

FBI “reverse location” warrant in Henrico County…. Photo credit: Forbes

Big brother Google is watching you. Back in October, 2018,  Forbes reported that a Virginia court had authorized the FBI to use a “reverse location” warrant to try to solve a series of crimes in Henrico County, Va. This warrant, also known as a geofence warrant, allows police to compel Google to provide all cellphone activity for all people in a general area over a specified period of time. The resulting handover of data includes locations and other information on potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of people. While Google has complied with the warrants in the past, it is unclear whether the company complied in the Henrico case. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Taxes, Crime and Schools

Cigarette taxes rarely yield projected revenues. A Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy study on cigarette taxes in Virginia has found: (1) cigarette taxes produce the most income the year they are imposed, then revenue declines in subsequent years; (2) over the long run, revenues rarely meet projections; and (3) convenience stores and small grocery stores don’t lose just cigarette sales when customers shop for better deals in neighboring jurisdictions, they lose the sale of incidentals. Conclusion: “Any short-term revenue gain often times comes at the expense of a long-term decline in sales and diminished economic activity.”

Baltimore, scandal and violence. The super-prosperous Washington metropolitan statistical area is flanked by two smaller MSAs: Baltimore to the north and Richmond to the south. The core jurisdictions of each, the City of Baltimore and the City of Richmond, have similar demographics and similar challenges with inner-city poverty. But crime-ridden Baltimore is losing population while Richmond, though hardly Nirvana, is gaining residents. The Washington Post profiles Baltimore in an article headlines, “Weary of scandal and violence, Baltimore residents ask: ‘Why do we stay?'” The last time the WaPo paid attention to Richmond was to highlight the police force’s success, one of the best in the nation, in closing out murder cases. The crime rate is a critical variable in inner-city revitalization. Continue reading

Virginia’s “Secret” Medical Marijuana Program

The doctor who should be governor. State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant is a Republican from Henrico County. She is also a practicing physician. In this year’s General Assembly session she put forth SB1557 which expanded last year’s so-called “Let Doctor’s Decide” legislation (HB1251).

What’s new? The 2018 legislation (HB1251) authorized licensed medical providers to prescribe CBD and THC-A oil “to alleviate the symptoms of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use.” CBD, or cannabidiol, is a naturally occurring compound found in the resinous flower of marijuana plants. It is used to treat a variety of maladies. It is non-intoxicating. THCA, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, is the non-psychoactive acid form of THC found in marijuana plants when raw. It is also non-intoxicating unless it is heated. Once heated, THCA releases THC which is intoxicating.  The 2018 legislation restricted THCA oil to contain no more than 5 mg of THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana). Continue reading

Will Virginia’s Real Recidivism Rate Please Stand Up?

In previous posts I have made much of the 23.4% recidivism rate from Virginia prisons. That’s the lowest — hence, the best — rate of all the 45 states that keep track. I’ve always construed the number as a fact that Virginians can be proud of. I have touted it as evidence that Virginia’s Department of Corrections was doing something right, and that, whatever it was, we should be doing more of it.

I should have known better. It turns out that there are many definitions of “recidivism.” And it’s not clear that Virginia is using the same definition as other states. We should hold off patting ourselves on the back until we’re certain that we’re comparing apples to apples.

Kudos to Jeff Schwaner with Staunton’s News Leader, who has dug into the numbers.

Update: Dick Hall-Sizemore, an expert in correctional issues, offers his own take on the numbers here in the comments. Continue reading

Follow-up: Charlottesville Race Threats a Really Bad “Joke”

A week ago I predicted that an online threat of racial violence that resulted in the shutdown of Charlottesville public schools would prove to be a hoax, possibly perpetrated by an activist trying to bring attention to racial injustice. Well, the incident did turn out to be a hoax, although I was wrong about the motive. The perpetrator, a 17-year-old white male, either (a) was making an immature “joke” (if you believe him) or (b) was seeking attention (if you believe local prosecutors). The key point is that the kid was not a white supremacist and the threat was not serious.

The “joke,” if truly meant as one, was truly unfunny. Posting anonymously online, the teenager threatened an ethnic cleansing and a school shooting, telling white students at Charlottesville High School to stay home, reports the Daily Progress. However, prosecutors said there was no evidence the teenager intended to carry out the threat. Police found no weapons at his house and found no evidence that he associated with white supremacist groups.

The “joke” was wildly irresponsible, all the more so when committed in a community where, a year and a half after a violent white supremacist rally, racial tensions remain frayed. The kid should be chastised and receive an appropriate punishment, and then everyone should chill out. Minorities are not under threat. White supremacists are not running amok in Charlottesville. Continue reading

Hit-and-Run Journalism and the Oppression Narrative

Interim Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene.

Two days ago, I took the Washington Post and New York Times to task for uncritically publicizing the allegations of recently resigned Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman that the police department was riddled with racism. Both newspapers rushed to publication without any dissenting view or even a note of caution.

Portsmouth City Council has appointed an interim replacement, Assistant Chief Angela Greene. In her first public statements yesterday, Greene, who like Chapman is a female African-American, said she did not see a problem with racism in the department. Said she, according to WTKR TV:

I can’t tell you what [Chapman] felt, what she might have gone through. My experience here in almost three years, I do not see that. I do not see that as a perception. I do not see that as a problem here.

Continue reading

When Hate Crime Equals Thought Crime

Today the Washington Post tells us that James A. Fields, Jr., the neo-Nazi who plowed a car into a group of counterprotesters at the infamous white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, is scheduled to appear in federal court for a hearing on “hate-crime” charges. Interestingly, the article neglects to tell us specifically which “hate crimes” were involved.

Fields has been found guilty already of first-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer, one of the people struck by Fields’ car. He has been sentenced to life in prison for the murder charge, 70 years for each of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, 20 years for each of three counts of malicious wounding, and nine years for leaving the scene of a fatal crash.

The man deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. He should be darn grateful he didn’t get the death penalty. Personally, I think he should get the electric chair (or whatever we use for capital punishment in Virginia these days). But I’m at a loss about the hate crime charges. Continue reading

Update on Charlottesville Race Threats

Last week, I urged people not to jump to conclusions regarding the threats of racial violence that resulted in the closure of Charlottesville public schools. Many such threats turned out to be hoaxes, perpetrated by activists seeking to raise consciousness of racism and bigotry. Let the police investigation play out, I suggested.

Well, it didn’t take long to find the perpetrator, although the motive still remains a mystery to the public. Charlottesville police have arrested a 17-year-old Albemarle County male who identifies as Portuguese.  Such an identity does not fit the stereotyped profile of either a white supremacist or a progressive activist. A second teenager was arrested over an online threat that referenced Albemarle High School. Continue reading

The Marijuana Legalization Debate in Virginia: Lessons from Colorado

It’s a long way from Colorado to Virginia!

Elevated thinking.  I recently had the opportunity to do some skiing in Colorado. I hadn’t been to Colorado since the state legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014. I expected to see a Cheech and Chong movie played out on a vast scale high in the Rocky Mountains. That expectation went unmet.  Instead, I saw an American town where legal marijuana use has been incorporated into everyday life in a barely noticeable manner. Colorado has more pot shops than Starbucks outlets but you wouldn’t know that from a cursory visit. All of which got me thinking – what has been the marijuana legalization experience in Colorado and what lessons are there for Virginia?

Nil sine numine. “Nothing without providence.”  Residents of The Centennial State believe Colorado is guided by a “divine will.” After five years of “divine will” has legal pot turned into Rastafarian revelry or Puritanical perfidy? My unscientific poll of Coloradans riding various chairlifts and gondolas with me established a consensus of … “more good than bad”. Continue reading

Fear and Loathing in the People’s Republic

Charlottesville students protested gun violence in a walkout last year. Photo credit: Daily Progress

The City of Charlottesville is closing all of its public schools today after alleged threats of racial violence surfaced online. Authorities did not say what the threats were, but the Washington Post reported images circulating on social media sites referring to a post on 4chan, an anonymous online messaging board, that “included a racist meme, used slurs for blacks and Latinos, and threatened to attack students of color at Charlottesville High.”

I’ll lay five-to-one odds that the threats are a hoax. The incident has many of the earmarks of racial hoaxes described in the book, “Hate Crime Hoax,” by Wilfred Reilly, an African-American professor at Kentucky State University.

One tip-off is that hate crimes reported on college campuses are almost always hoaxes. In this case, we’re talking about a college town, not a college campus. But we’re talking about an extremely “progressive” town where racial sensitivities remain acute a year and a half after the infamous United the Right rally. The white supremacists, almost none of whom were actually from Charlottesville, have long since dispersed, but memories remain vivid, citizens cultivate their sense of victimhood — a link from the Washington Post article reads, “A year later, Charlottesville remains a wounded city” — and students are radicalized politically. Continue reading

More on Solitary Confinement

(This is a follow-up to, and expansion on, an earlier post by Jim Bacon on solitary confinement.)

“Solitary confinement” is a term fraught with dread or terror. It conjures up images of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, or, in real life, John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton. That is not the reality in Virginia prisons. 

During my tenure at the Department of Planning and Budget, the Department of Corrections was my primary assignment. As part of that assignment, I toured Virginia prisons each summer for about 20 years. I realize that my visits were somewhat sanitized. I was accompanied, most of the time, by senior DOC officials. As a result, the inmates and officers were probably on their best behavior and DOC officials did not tell or show me everything  (They would have if I had asked, but I did not always know enough to ask.)  With those caveats, however, I think I have a good sense of the overall situation.

By its very terms, “solitary confinement” means being confined alone, not having contact with other humans. That is not the case with Virginia prisons. Those inmates housed in DOC’s version of “solitary” confinement are in single cells, but can communicate with their guards, can leave their cells several times a week for showers and outdoor recreation, have regular visits from counselors and psychologists, and, in some cases, can participate in education or other programming. As a result, DOC avoids the term “solitary confinement.”  Instead, it uses other terms. For a long time, such offenders were placed in “segregation.”  More recently, the euphemism is “restrictive housing”.  (Another outside analyst I worked with responded to this term by saying, “I thought all correctional housing was restrictive!”)  Continue reading

Are Conclusions Pre-Ordained for Solitary Confinement Study?

One of the latest crusades of the Left is the abolition of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons. A coalition of 16 groups, including the ACLU of Virginia and Amnesty International, are concerned that placing prisoners in isolation can lead to mental health issues and suicide attempts. Now these groups have prevailed upon the General Assembly to study the practice in the Old Dominion.

Legislation passed this session will require the Department of Corrections (DOC) to report data on the age, sex, race, ethnicity, mental health status, and security level of each inmate held in solitary confinement, along with the number of days spent there, and their disciplinary offense history. There has been a kerfluffle over the $2 million cost of collecting the data, according to The Virginia Mercury. DOC says it would have to hire 30 new employees to compile the data, most of which is kept in paper format. But there is a larger issue at stake.

The conclusions of the study are likely to be driven by the way the problem is framed, the questions asked, and the data collected. Call me a cynic, but here’s how I see this issue playing out: The study will show that certain groups (African-Americans and prisoners with mental health issues, most likely) are locked up in solitary confinement in numbers disproportionate to their prison population. Ergo, discrimination will be assumed, and curtailment of solitary confinement will become the latest rallying cry of the Social Justice movement.

There are two points worth keeping in mind as this controversy unfolds. Continue reading

Bad Analysis, Legislative Gamesmanship, Misplaced Priorities

In 2016, Keith Harward was released from Virginia’s prisons after serving 33 years for a crime he did not commit.

Harward was convicted of a 1982 rape and murder largely on the basis of the testimony of forensic dentists that bite marks on the victim matched his teeth. Many years later, following improvements in DNA testing methods, analysis of evidence left at the crime scene excluded Harward as the perpetrator.

The use of bite marks and other traditional evidence such as hair analysis has been largely discredited as being unreliable and having little scientific basis by both the National Academy of Sciences (here) and by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (here).  In addition, the current guidelines of the professional governing body for forensic dentists recommends the use of bite mark evidence only for exculpatory purposes (here).

Virginia rules for the introduction of new evidence after a person has been found guilty of a crime are among the strictest in the nation. Generally, a convicted person has only 21 days following the entry of a final order by the court to bring forward new evidence supporting his or her innocence. There are two exceptions. If there is new evidence that was unknown or unavailable at the trial, the convicted person may petition the Court of Appeals to consider that evidence and set aside the finding of guilty. However, the bar is high for anyone to use this avenue. The other exception relates to previously unknown or untested “human biological evidence”, i.e. DNA testing. Upon learning the results of such testing, the convicted person may petition the Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of actual innocence. Again, the conditions under which such a writ can be granted are strict. Failing to succeed with, or qualify for, these methods, the convicted person may petition the Governor for a pardon. Continue reading