Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Hate Crime Hysteria

Source: Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia” reports.

“Hate is turning deadly with frightening frequency in America,” wrote Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring in an anguished Washington Post op-ed last month. In building his case, he cited the 11 Jews slain recently in Pittsburgh; the killing of two African-Americans in Louisville, and Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. No litany of hate crimes would be complete without mentioning the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year that resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer.

“It is well past time for us to acknowledge the real, growing and deadly threat posed by hate and white supremacist violence,” Herring wrote. “In Virginia and around the country, we have seen far too many alarming reminders that we cannot dismiss this growing wave of hate as a harmless fringe element. … The threat is real, and the consequences can be deadly.” Continue reading

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

So… My wife was out of town Friday night, and I was doing my wonky thing, poking through the Virginia State Police 2017 Crime Report, when I came across a breakdown of criminal offenses by gender. I’ll ignore the VSP’s retrograde oversight in classifying offenders by only two genders — male and female, as if the criminal population were devoid of transgenders — and I’ll focus on the implications of my findings for a recent ACLU of Virginia study, which found that, although 85% of prisoners are male, Virginia prisons still inflict “widespread and discriminatory suffering” upon women. Continue reading

Washington City Council Puts Virginia Taxpayers, Metro Riders at Risk

Well, Washington City Council has gone and done it — decriminalized Metro fare evasion. America now will be treated to an interesting social experiment. If it doesn’t go well, Virginia taxpayers will wind up picking up part of the tab.

The financially strapped Metro, which operates the mass transit bus and rail system for the Washington metropolitan area, is already losing $25 million a year from turnstyle jumping and other forms of non-payment. Metro officials worry that decriminalization could mean even bigger losses.

City council members counter that criminal enforcement, along with criminal penalties and jail terms, disproportionately impacts African-Americans. Ninety-one percent of citations and summonses were issued to blacks. “That is a problem,” Council member Robert C. White Jr. said, referring to the 91 percent figure. “I’m sad that’s Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.”

The interesting question is whether fare evasion and lost revenue will increase. Evasion arrests, citations and warnings have surged in recent years, from 4,000 in 2013 to 15,000 by 2017, reports the Washington Post. Eighty percent of those losses occur in the District of Columbia.

“We have a big problem with fare evasion at Metro,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who also serves as Metro board chairman. “And when it is understood that you will just get a civil citation that is largely unenforceable, you have a higher incidence.”

Advocates of decriminalization have likened the nonpayment of fares to the nonpayment of parking tickets, which is a misdemeanor. If parking-ticket scofflaws don’t face criminal charges, why should turnstyle jumpers?

Advocates of criminal penalties and enforcement invoke the “broken windows” theory of policing, which contends that failure to punish small offenses emboldens criminal behavior and leads to worse offenses. Conversely, enforcing minor criminal offenses suppresses worse crimes.

Metro posits that increased enforcement against fare evasion has led to a reduction in more serious offenses, owing to the police presence and the proportion of fare evasion stops leading police to more severe offenders.

For example, the board argued, while 8 percent of fare evasion stops lead to arrests according to current figures, most of those arrests resulted not from the initial fare evasion charge but rather from existing warrants for other offenses — a further crime such as assault on a police officer, or failure to produce identification.

Bacon’s bottom line. The D.C. councilpersons raise a fair point: Why should fare skippers (mostly black) be treated so much worse than parking scofflaws (of undetermined racial composition)? Isn’t there a double standard at work? Here’s how I would respond.

First, nonpayment of parking citations doesn’t create an environment that leads to other crimes. Failure to crack down on turnstyle jumping, by contrast, contributes to a sense of lawlessness in the D.C. subway system that encourages other forms of criminal behavior.

Second, revenue lost from turnstyle jumpers is only part of the fiscal equation. If lawlessness increases — more pickpocketing, more robbery, more assaults — many law-abiding Metro passengers will stop riding the rails. A small increase in lawlessness could spark a large change in behavior, especially among risk-averse riders such as women and the elderly. Thus a doubling of fare evasion, should it occur, could quadruple or quintiple the revenue losses if we account for lost ridership. Remember, ridership has been declining in recent years due to safety, scheduling and riding-experience concerns. Lawlessness could accelerate the trend.

Of course, this is all speculation. We won’t know the result until the new policy is implemented.

Here’s the rub. While Washington City Council conducts its social experiment, Washington shares the fiscal pain of lost revenue with Virginia and Maryland. Should revenues decline, Metro will be faced with a choice of cutting back operations, deferring maintenance, or going to the state and local governments whose population it serves and asking for more money. Washington City Council has put Virginia taxpayers and Metro riders at risk.

Altria rumored to be in talks to buy Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group

High in Henrico.  Henrico County based Altria, makers of Marlboro cigarettes among other products, is rumored to be interested in buying Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group.  Altria is refusing comment while Cronos said it “confirmed that it is engaged in discussions concerning a potential investment by Altria Group … in Cronos Group.”  Cronos went on to say that no agreement had been reached and there is no assurance that the discussions will lead to a deal.

Is that really a maple leaf on the flag?  Canada legalized possession of marijuana nationally effective October 17, 2018.  Under the national law provinces have some latitude regarding specific cannabis regulation.   In Quebec and Alberta, the legal age is 18; it’s 19 in the remainder of the country for example.  However, unlike the United States, there is no dichotomy between national and provincial (state) law.  There can be no doubt that this legal clarity is encouraging companies like Altria to consider entering the Canadian marijuana market while sitting on the sidelines of American states which have legalized grass.

Implications for Virginia.  Pot legislation and the business of selling pot is moving quickly in North America.  In November Michigan became the tenth US state to legalize possession of marijuana.  There is legislation pending for the 2019 General Assembly session to decriminalize marijuana in the Old Dominion.  Now an iconic and politically connected Virginia-based company apparently sees no moral or ethical issue with participating in Canada’s legal marijuana market.  Given that Altria’s board includes Virginia luminaries such as Thomas F Farrell, CEO of Dominion and John T Casteen, former President of UVA one wonders if Altria’s plans might lend respectability to marijuana reform in Virginia.

I smell refund.  In 2018 a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana (SB 111) was defeated along party lines in the Courts of Justice.  Nine Republican state senators voted against the bill.  Over the years all nine have received campaign contributions from Altria.  Given that these nine politicians see marijuana possession as a serious crime one would hope they will return these campaign contributions given that Altria is trying to engage in marijuana production, distribution and sale.  After all, is it moral to keep money contributed by a company engaging in practices you think should be illegal?  Here are the amounts (per VPAP):

Obenshain – $44,250
Norment – $128,433
McDougle – $58,000
Stuart – $8,500
Stanley – $9,500
Reeves – $28,265
Chafin – $1,500
Sturtevant – $8,000
Peake – $500

— Don Rippert

Marijuana arrests and racism in Virginia (especially Arlington County)

Reefer madness.  The upcoming debate in the Virginia General Assembly over decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana may have racial overtones.  VCU Capital News Service studied the data for marijuana arrests in Virginia from 2010 through 2016.  African Americans were 3.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes than whites.  At the same time separate research shows almost no difference in marijuana use between white and black Americans.  Across America it’s even worse.  Nationally, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana crime than a white person.

Location, location, location.  VCU Capital News Service breaks down the data by locality.  You can find the numbers here.  The only jurisdictions where the per capita arrest rate for whites is higher than blacks are those counties where the population is so low that a single arrest can make a statistical difference.  Highland County, for example, averaged 13 African American residents over the study’s time period and none of the 13 were arrested for marijuana crimes.  Two white people (out of about 2,200) were arrested for marijuana crimes in Highland County.  In all of Virginia’s populous localities the African American arrest rate was notably higher than the corresponding rate for white people.  In Hanover County for example, blacks were arrested at a frequency 6.3 times that of whites.

Libtopia.  Anybody who has ever been to Arlington County knows that safe spaces are mandated by the building codes, snowflakes can be seen in July and rainbow colored unicorns prance in the bike lanes.  It’s a progressive paradise.  So it probably comes as a surprise that African Americans were more than eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana crimes in Arlington from 2010 – 2016.  Arlington County’s Board has five Democrats, no Republicans and no independents.  The lone independent (John Vihstadt) was defeated in November.  How is it possible for the Lions of Libtopia to turn a blind eye to rampant racism occurring in their social justice warrior wonderland?

The Hook is dope.  If you do want to posses marijuana you ought to consider residing in the City of Charlottesville (25 total arrests per 100,000 residents) rather than the City of Emporia (1,595 total arrests per 100,000 residents).  You are 64 times more likely to get a reefer bust in Emporia than in Charlottesville.  Does anybody think that the people of Emporia use marijuana 64 times more often than the people in Charlottesville?  In fairness, I95 comprises about 1/2 of the border of Emporia so many of the arrests may be people using that highway.  However, Falls Church (51) vs Fairfax City (589) makes one wonder.

Unfair at any speed.  As the General Assembly considers decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana it should also consider the fairness of the present system.  Vast differences are observable in the enforcement of marijuana laws across race and location.  In locality after locality you are more likely to be arrested for marijuana if you are black vs white.  The City of Charlottesville (pop 45k) made 11 marijuana related arrests from 2010 through 2016, fewer than 2 per year.  The City of Danville (pop 43k) made 354 arrests over the same period, over 50 per year.

— Don Rippert

A Crime-Fighting Experiment at Gilpin Court

Police patrol at Gilpin Court. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Attorney General’s office is funding an interesting social experiment. On the theory that fighting crime requires addressing root causes over and above actually, uh, fighting crime, the AG is providing $1 million to fund programs designed to improve health, education and economic outcomes and strengthen neighborhood ties at the City of Richmond’s largest housing project, Gilpin Court.

“Instead of a top-down approach that tries to tell Gilpin what it needs, we’re going to bring together everyone who cares about this community and who has good ideas to reduce crime, strengthen the neighborhood, and improve quality of life for Gilpin residents, especially young people, said Attorney General Mark Herring, as quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Greater Gilpin is going to reduce crime and make Gilpin Court safer by taking a more holistic approach and attacking the factors we know contribute to higher rates of crime, like poverty, drug use, limited educational or job opportunities, and poor health.”

The grant will allocate $187,000 to pay for additional police patrols in Gilpin Court, a project of 781 housing units occupied by about 2,700 residents. But the rest will go to hiring a full-time program coordinator and underwrite for programs identified through community meetings.

“Building stronger, safer communities means addressing the underlying factors that can contribute to violence and violent crime,” Mayor Levar Stoney said in a statement. “This initiative will build on the strengths of the community and empower Gilpin residents to have a say and a stake in the future of the neighborhood.”

The program encapsulates every liberal piety about the relationship between poverty and crime…. which, in my estimation, means that it is doomed to failure because liberal pieties about poverty and crime are misguided. While it is true that violent crime is more prevalent in poor neighborhoods, there has been very little correlation between changes in the rates of poverty and violent crime over the decades. The relationship between the two is tenuous and complex with many intervening variables.

One critical variable is the prevalence of families dominated by unwed mothers and the lack of consistent daily discipline provided by fathers, which results in a failure to enculturate young people with non-violent norms. Teenage boys roam free in Gilpin Court with few parental restrictions. They develop their own young, male, Lord-of-the-Flies subculture, which skews towards partying, substance abuse, petty criminality, an obsession with status among peers, and, often, violence.

To the extent that crime among male teens and young men is the outcome of rational calculation — weighing potential gains from crime versus the prospect of getting caught and punished — increased neighborhood patrols undoubtedly will be useful. Richmond police doctrine emphasizes the building of community bonds that engender trust with residences, so a heightened the police presence should have a positive impact. Conversely, while the funding of “community programs” may provide benefits to Gilpin residents, unless they interrupt the dynamic of fatherless boys, I am dubious that they will have any impact on crime.

I might be wrong, however. I’m not omniscient. Perhaps liberals have it right. Perhaps the program will be a smashing success. The fact is, nobody knows. That’s the point of conducting an experiment.

I’d be all in favor of conducting this particular experiment if it were set up so we might learn something from it. Ideally, the experiment would confirm or disprove the notion that addressing certain “underlying factors” by means of programs chosen through community input will reduce crime. Unfortunately by doing two things at once, both boosting policing and attacking root causes, the factors contributing to positive or negative outcomes will be hard to disentangle. If the program does prove to be beneficial, we are unlikely to learn anything from it because we won’t know whether the police or the community programs deserve the credit. In the absence of unambiguous data, liberals will continuing embracing their pieties, and conservatives theirs, everyone will continue believing what they always believed, and we will flounder about as always.

Va 2019 General Assembly session – prefiled House of Delegates bills

Click here to see the 9 weird laws

Much ado about nothing.  As of this morning there were 83 prefiled bills for the House of Delegates and 225 prefiled bills for the State Senate.  With a few exceptions the House prefiles are pretty “ho hum”.  I will examine the Senate prefiles in a subsequent column.

One from column A and two from column B.  I use a somewhat arbitrary approach to categorizing the prefiled bills.  By my analysis … governmental process (17), education (12), crime and courts (10), election reform (8), finance and taxes (7), health care (6), nonsense (6), environment (6), transportation (4), campaign reform (4) and energy (2).

Governmental process.  These are the day to day clarifications, corrections and amplifications needed to make existing legislation more effective.  For example, HB246 clarifies the role of the code commission in preparing legislation at the direction of the General Assembly.  One of these bills will further depress Jim Bacon’s journalistic sensibilities.  HB1629 eliminates the requirement that Virginia procurement contracts be reported in newspapers.  Mixed in with the proposed routine legislation are some zingers.  For example, there are three separate bills to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (HJ577, HJ579, HJ583).  There are also four bills proposing changes  to the Virginia Constitution.  HJ578 would add a right to vote to the state constitution, HJ582 would establish a redistricting committee, HJ584 would allow the governor to run for a second consecutive term and HJ585 has the governor and lieutenant governor running as a single ticket instead of separate offices.

Education.  The only theme in the education prefiles is an attempt to provide financial incentives for localities to rebuild the physical plant of their schools.  One of the more interesting bills would allow commercial advertising on school buses (HB809) while another would guarantee that our children’s God given right to wear unscented sun block not be abridged (HB330).

Crime and courts.  Bail bondsmen and bondswomen are forbidden from having sex with their clients (HB525) and shooting a police dog, or even showing a gun to a police dog,  becomes a more serious crime (HB1616).  Other than that, pretty mundane stuff.

Finance and taxes.  Way too many people and too many companies are paying taxes (HB966) and veterinarians really need a break from those pesky sales taxes (HB747).

Potpourri.  The remaining categories contain a few interesting ideas.  Del Rasoul wants to ban the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation (HB1635), Del Cole wants to give I95 some love (HJ580, HJ581) and he also has the radical idea that campaign contributions should not be for personal use (HB1617).  In fact, Del Cole’s proposed legislation is putting him perilously close to making my very short list of competent Virginia legislators.

Closer to home.  My delegate, Kathleen Murphy, continues to propose jaw dropping, eye popping examples of legislative uselessness.  She proposes to let her pals skirt Virginia traffic laws by displaying a special sticker on their cars (HB295) and offers some odd rules on distance learning reciprocity (HB659).  I guess issues like mass transportation don’t cross her mind these days.

— Don Rippert.

Virginia to Consider New Marijuana Decriminalization bill in 2019 General Assembly Session

If at first you don’t succeed … State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) has pre-filed a 2019 bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Virginia. The matter will be taken up in the General Assembly session in early 2019.  Last year Ebbin patroned a similar bill that was defeated 9-6 in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee along party lines.

Still illegal.  The new Ebbin bill, like the one in 2018, proposes to decriminalize (rather than legalize) the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the Old Dominion. The law presently in place provides for a maximum $500 fine and up to a 30 day jail term for the first offense.  Penalties escalate for subsequent offenses. Ebbin’s proposed bill makes possession of a small amount of marijuana a civil offense with fines of $50 to $250 depending on a variety of circumstances such as whether it was the first offense or a subsequent offense.

Another loser for the RPV / GOP.  The vast majority of Americans and Virginians support the decriminalization of marijuana. In fact, a notable majority of Americans and Virginians go so far as to support legalization of marijuana. Yet the supposedly liberty loving, regulation hating Republican Party has done everything it can to oppose both decriminalization and legalization. As previously mentioned, the nine Republicans on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee blocked full house consideration of Sen Ebbin’s bill in 2018. At the national level it’s much the same. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has written a “Blueprint to Legalize Marijuana” .  It’s a pretty simple plan … take control of the House then enact marijuana reform. Up until now that blueprint was blocked by the House Rules Committee led by its chairman, Pete Sessions (R-TX).  But things are different now that the Democrats have taken control of the house.  Plant prohibitionists like Rep Sessions are no longer calling the shots.

2019. Another year, another marijuana decriminalization bill in the Virginia General Assembly. What will become of SB997 in 2019? My guess is for a repeat of 2018 with Republicans killing the bill in committee.

Demographic changes? There has been a lot of discussion about the recent federal election on this blog. Much has been made of how the success of Democrats in Virginia is an inevitable consequence of demographics and the influx of those from outside Virginia. Some have even taken to calling Virginia the southernmost northeastern state. Balderdash. The real problem is that Virginia’s Republican politicians and the RPV are clueless. The question of marijuana reform crosses demographic boundaries. Middle-aged adults are using marijuana at an increasing rate. Last year, all nine of the Republicans on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted to block the decriminalization bill. At the same time 76% of the Virginians these Republicans claim to represent support marijuana decriminalization. Meanwhile, arrests in Virginia for marijuana rose 20% in the last year. Arrests for a “crime” that more than three quarters of Virginians don’t think should be a crime are skyrocketing while the aged political elite in the RPV blocks so much as a full vote on the matter. I wonder why the Republicans keep losing in Virginia? It has far more to due with a lack of competence than a change in demographics.

— Don Rippert

Caravans, Asylum and MS-13

It’s been frustrating the past couple of days. Attending a family funeral in Wilksboro, N.C., I’ve been unable to respond to the tremendous ruckus created by Steve Haner’s past three columns. Great job, Steve. Keep up the rabble rousing! I’m back now, though, and I’ve been catching up on my reading. And the story the caught my eye was an article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal describing the increasing grip of street gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 on the countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

Nabra Hassanen

Reading about the Central American caravans working their way through Mexico toward the United States, I’m struck by two conflicting impulses. The first is humanitarian. It’s impossible to hear the migrants’ stories without feeling compassion for their plight. They live in countries where the bad guys fought the law and… the law lost. The WSJ tells how street gangs rob, extort and murder with impunity. The murder rate in El Salvador is twelve times that of the U.S. Who would not want to flee such places in a desperate search for a better life? Who could blame these people for seeking asylum?

The second impulse is to say, No way, Jose. If the migrants manage to make it into the country, where do you think they’re heading? Well, it turns out that there are three main concentrations of Salvadorans in the United States — California, Long Island, N.Y., Maryland/Virginia, mainly in the Washington metropolitan area. When immigrants come to a new country, they don’t settle at random. They head to locales where people from the same villages and districts have already settled. Many would land in Virginia.

Darwin Martinez Torres

And what kind of people would those immigrants be? The media feeds us photographs of mothers with young children, portraying the caravans as brigades of baby strollers. President Trump speaks of young men capable of violence, conjuring images of the hoodlums who stormed the barricades at the Guatemalan-Mexican border. Trump and the media both have their own political agendas. It’s hard to know whom to trust. I suspect that both capture a piece of the truth.

I err toward the side of caution. Set up facilities and procedures for processing claims of people seeking asylum. But make it clear that people enter the United States on America’s terms, not those of the asylum seekers. The U.S. has an obligation to weed out gang members who might prey upon their fellow Salvadorans — or Americans such as Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year-old Muslim girl who allegedly was beaten and raped in Sterling by a bat-wielding member of MS-13, Darwin Martinez Torres. Surely there is a way to provide sanctuary to asylum seekers while also keeping out murderers, extortionists and rapists.

Virginia’s 2018 Marijuana Decriminalization Bill: What Happened and What’s Next?

Up in smoke.  During the 2018 General Assembly session a bill to decriminalize marijuana was killed in committee.  The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted along party lines on that bill, SB 111. All nine Republican Senators on the Committee voted to keep marijuana possession (in any amount) a criminal act in Virginia while all six Democratic Senators voted to decriminalize pot.  To be clear – the vote was to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, it was not a bill that proposed legalizing marijuana.

Here today, here tomorrow.  Decriminalization foes won the SB111 battle in 2018 but the war goes on.  The lines are drawn for the next skirmish.  As Sen Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham), who voted against decriminalization, said … “It’s an issue that isn’t going away.  We’re going to be talking about it for a long time.”  That’s an interesting comment from a prohibitionist.  One can only hope that Sen Obenshain knows that time and further dialog are both working against him and his fellow pot prosecutors.  If he doesn’t understand that I’d really like to ask him what he’s been smoking.

Abby Hoffman vs Barney Fife.  The main support for decriminalization comes from the ACLU with a supporting cast of politicians including U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (federal decriminalization), Governor Ralph Northam (a medical doctor) and Adam Ebbin  (D-Alexandria).  Opposition is led by the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys with political support from the aforementioned Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham).

Arrested development.  Subsequent to the committee vote on decriminalization, statistics were released that revealed arrests for marijuana possession in Virginia shot up in 2017, increasing by 20% over 2016.  Apparently, prosecuting Virginians for possession of a plant is a large and fast growing business in the Commonwealth.  One can only guess how much criminalizing marijuana costs Virginia or how many Commonwealth’s Attorneys have jobs based on pot possession being a crime.

Oh wow … what’s a voter … man?  A poll on the question of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in Virginia was published in the midst of the 2018 General Assembly session.  Conducted by the Watson Center for Public Policy and Christopher Newport University, the poll found that 76% of Virginians favored decriminalization.  And the Republican politicians in Virginia keep wondering why they are continually losing their power and influence in Virginia.  Perhaps they would be well advised to just roll that number around in their heads for a while … seventy-six percent.

Heroes.  Senators voting for decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana: Creigh Deeds, D-Bath; John Edwards, D-Roanoke; Janet Howell, D-Fairfax; Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth; Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City; and Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

Zeroes.  Senators voting against decriminalization: Ben Chafin, R-Russell; Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover; Tommy Norment, R-Mars; Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham; Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg; Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania; Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County; Richard Stuart, R-Stafford; and Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond.

2019.  2019 is an election year for Virginia’s state legislature.  Democrats will push another marijuana decriminalization bill in the 2019 General Assembly session.  Then they will beat the Republicans who opposed the bill over the head with those votes in November.

— Don Rippert.

The case for legalizing recreational marijuana use in Virginia

Caveat.  While I have no moral objection to the possession of marijuana I do not espouse breaking the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  I believe the marijuana laws in Virginia should be changed but, until they are changed, I encourage everybody to obey the laws as they are presently written.

Strive for five.  I believe the five key reasons for legalizing recreational marijuana use in Virginia for adults are liberty, the failure of the current approach, costs of enforcement – both financially and in terms of racial bias, the economic benefits to the state and the inevitability of legalization.  Each will be discussed in turn.

Democracy, liberty and freedom.  The first and most important reason to legalize recreational marijuana use in Virginia is philosophical.  Our political leaders in Richmond speak in hushed, reverential voices about “Mister Jefferson”.  They then turn around and ignore the fact that a significant majority of Virginians favor legalizing marijuana.  Somehow, our political leaders seem to think that banning a plant against the wishes of a majority of the electorate is commensurate with Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of democracy, liberty and freedom.  Perhaps our General Assembly should start referring to Thomas Jefferson as “ole what’s his name” until they can demonstrate some willingness to adhere to Jefferson’s actual views on liberty, etc.

Pot prohibition has failed.  Federal, state and local efforts to make and keep marijuana use illegal have not curtailed its use.  Our government has been busily trying to ban marijuana since 1937 and raised the stakes considerably with the Controlled Substances Act (which became effective in 1971).   Nearly 50 years after the federal government made marijuana a Schedule 1 “narcotic” its use continues to rise.

Enforcement and racial bias.  The enforcement costs needed to continue the ineffective prohibition of pot are very high.  In Virginia authorities have made 133,000 arrests for marijuana possession over the past 10 years.  10,000 Virginians are convicted of a first time marijuana possession offense every year. In fact, marijuana arrests in Virginia increased over the past year.  Worse yet, the arrests are heavily weighted against African-Americans.  VCU studied the data in 2015.  As NORML calls out, “That study concluded that blacks account for nearly half of all marijuana possession arrests, but comprise only 20 percent of the state population.”  Some parts of Virginia are far worse than that.  “In some counties and towns, such as in Hanover County and in Arlington, Virginia, the black arrest rate was six to eight times that of whites.”  These arrest ratios completely diverge from studies showing that marijuana use is roughly the same between backs and whites.

Economics.  The Kansas City Federal Reserve studied the economic impact of marijuana legalization on the state of Colorado … “In 2017, the state of Colorado collected more than $247 million from the marijuana industry, including state sales taxes on recreational and medical, special sales taxes on recreational, excise taxes on recreational and application and licenses fees.”  Given that Virginia’s population is 42% bigger than Colorado’s a straight line interpolation would suggest $353m in annual taxes in Virginia.  That total does not count the savings from reduced law enforcement nor does it include the potential profit generated for the state if the legal marijuana were sold through Virginia ABC stores.

Inevitability.  Nine states and DC have legalized marijuana.  Michigan and North Dakota will vote on adult use marijuana legalization this November.  This week the entire country of Canada legalized the recreational use of marijuana.  Once again Virginia is being surrounded by progress and once again Virginia is standing slack jawed and rheumy eyed as a philosophical island of obstinate resistance to inevitable change.

– Don Rippert.

Getting Virginians their Lives Back One License at a Time

LaPonda Carter lived with a relative in Amelia County, raising her daughter and driving to her job at the VCU Medical Center in downtown Richmond. She frequently loaned her car to the family member. Unbeknownst to her, the relative racked up frequent toll violations. The charges quickly added up — $0.75 per toll, plus $25 administrative fees for not paying on time, plus $500 court fines, plus court costs. The fees, fines and penalties eventually reached an astonishing total — nearly $100,000. Adding insult to injury, Carter had her license yanked.

By working with Drive-to-Work, a Richmond-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping lower-income Virginians get their driving rights restored, she managed to get her licensed reinstated. Now Drive-to-Work is working with her to resolve the toll-violation cases.

Virginia law allows for the suspension of revocation of driver’s licenses for a wide variety of offenses that have nothing to do with bad driving — collecting court costs, non-payment of civil judgments, and failure to pay child support. Of Virginia’s 5.8 million licensed drivers, 974,000 are under suspended-license orders. While some kind of sanction may be called upon for their offenses, says Drive-to-Work President Randy Rollins, a person deprived of a driver’s license often is unable to work and meet the very obligations the suspended licenses are meant to punish.

Ten years ago when Rollins first approached members of the General Assembly to reform the laws, he typically got a frosty reception. But attitudes are changing among both liberals and conservatives, he says. Restoring drivers licenses increasingly is seen as an issue that both advances social justice and supports individual responsibility and self-help.

The nonprofit group operates first and foremost to help people like Carter get their licenses back and work out arrangements so they can pay their fees, fines and penalties. Case workers have helped more than 2,000 individual clients to date. In a related initiative staffed by volunteer attorneys, Drive-to-Work has given 96 prison seminars to help offenders get their licenses when they are released from custody.

Rollins also is working with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to remove another potential impediment — the need to attend a driver improvement clinic before getting a license reinstated. What better time to attend such a clinic, he asks, than when offenders have lots of free time in prison? Drive-to-Work will deliver a clinic online for $65 per participant, a sum that will be reduced to $20 after DOC and Drive-to-Work subsidies. That program is temporarily in limbo up as DOC undertakes the migration of its IT systems to the state’s new vendor, but Rollins is optimistic the issues will be worked out soon.

In the meantime, Rollins, who served as Secretary of Public Safety during the Wilder administration, is working to help lawmakers identify ways to help the cause. He highlights one piece of successful legislation and two additional measures that he would like to see passed.

Pay plans for court fees. Millions of Virginians live paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t have a spare $1,000 to pay court fines and fees. Rather than suspend their licenses, making it harder to work and pay back anything, a law sponsored by Republican Del. Manoli Loupassi allowed for repaying the fines in agreed-upon installments and restoring the license when the agreement was signed, not later when the fines were paid in full.

After a year’s experience, says Rollins, the law appears to be making a difference. Judges are considering individual circumstances when setting payment agreements, many are requiring lower down payments, and a 10-day grace period is preventing defaults.

Suspensions for civil judgments. If a motorist drives a car while uninsured and causes an accident, his or her license can be suspended for failure to pay civil judgments to the insurance companies. While Rollins agrees that there should be sanctions against people who fail to pay, he says suspending their licenses for reasons unrelated to safety violations makes no sense. The license suspension is just another collection tool. If you owe a hospital money, the hospital can’t suspend your license. If you default on your credit card, the card company can’t suspend your license. Why should insurance companies be treated differently?

Child support payments. Licenses can be suspended for failure to pay child support. Child support obligations can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. While the courts do allow payment plans, the minimum down payment is too high, Rollins argues. A $20,000 obligation, for instance, would require a 5% down payment or $600, whichever was higher — often beyond the means of the poor and near poor. Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, sponsored a bill last year that would have set the obligation at the lower of 5% or $600. The bill was defeated last year.

“Suspensions for child support have nothing to do with traffic safety,” says Rollins. In fact the suspension can be a barrier to gainful employment and reduce the chances for paying any child support.”

Bacon Bits: As Virginia Slowly Unravels

Yes, it’s OK to panic. Norfolk Southern Corp., the beneficiary of local incentives a year or two ago when it moved jobs from Roanoke to Norfolk, now is said to be close to announcing the relocation of its headquarters to Atlanta.  “A deal has already been struck,” Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander told the Virginian-Pilot. It appears that a decision is “going to be made and made soon.”

This will be a huge morale blow to Hampton Roads. Norfolk Southern is one of only two Fortune 500 company in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach side of the metropolitan area. (The other is Dollar Tree. Huntington Ingalls is located north of the James River.) Let’s hope the City of Norfolk can claw back every dime it gave away.

Spend money to make money? The Washington Metro’s executive and board leadership are in a quandary on how to reverse the decline in ridership. The Washington Post quotes an internal study that proffers some answers: Increase the frequency of service and extend hours, thus reversing the decline in so-called “super riders” who use the heavy rail service 40 or more times per month. Metro has cut back its service in recent years as its financial situation has deteriorated.

But the WaPo article is unclear about whether a restoration of service would pay for itself. The article quotes a lot of numbers, but none answer the essential question of whether the ridership revenue generated would equal or exceed the added expense — a critical issue, one would think, for an organization that (a) operates at a loss, and (b) still faces unfunded capital needs and pension liabilities.

Is it “stop and frisk”  or “investigative detention?” The latest uproar in the People’s Republic of Charlottesville is over the alleged police practice of stop-and-frisk, which allegedly disproportionately targets minorities. Roiling the waters even more, Charlottesville’s Police Chief RaShall Brackney said yesterday that data on the city’s policy — whatever you call it — will be unavailable until it is extracted from a new software system, reports the Daily Progress.

Community activists note that African-Americans made up 122 of the 173 people stopped for what the police calls “investigative detention.” Fifty-five of the stops happened after police were dispatched to an area, whereas 118 of those stops were officer-initiated.

Brackney, who is female and black, disputed the stop-and-frisk label. “We don’t do stop and frisk,” she said. “We do either a mere encounter or we engage a person [in] which we may have a warrantless search and seizure. I will not, I will not, label what we do based on some national trends or what New York has decided to do.”

Boomergeddon watch: From Government Executive: The United States Postal Service retirement health fund will run out of money in 12 years if Congress does not act. Approximately 500,000 retirees rely upon the program. The Postal Service has missed $38 billion in required prefunding payments into the retiree health fund since 2010. Either way, someone is screwed. Either postal retirees see major cuts to their pensions or the taxpayers pick up the multibillion-dollar tab.

Legalized Medical and Recreational Marijuana Use Appear to Hurt Alcohol Sales

High times.  In a recent Bacon’s Rebellion column … Will Virginia Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use … I noted that well over 20% of Americans now live in states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.  In the column I wondered whether our General Assembly’s reluctance to address the question in a meaningful way might be attributable to Virginia’s unholy trinity of political corruption:

  1. Unlimited campaign contributions
  2. Opposition by well heeled vested interests (i.e., the alcohol manufacturing, distribution and retail industry)
  3. Essentially non-existent rules on the use of, or reporting on, campaign contributions

My hypothesis was that a river of money flows from Virginia’s alcohol industry into the pockets of our elected officials.  The alcohol industry is opposed to legalizing marijuana since legalization hurts alcohol sales.  Meanwhile, our elected officials want to keep the money flow going since it funds not only their re-election plans but also dinners at Bookbinders, golf outings, private clubs and all sorts of other goodies.  Therefore, legalization of marijuana is intentionally stalled in Virginia.  Virginia’s reputation as America’s Most Corrupt State is, in my opinion, well established.  However, the question of whether legalized marijuana use hurts alcohol sales needs to be further examined.

Paging Doctor Weed.  The best information about the impact of marijuana legalization on alcohol sales comes from studies of medical marijuana legalization.  Medical marijuana has been legalized for longer and in more states than recreational marijuana.  Some would say that medical marijuana is a poor proxy for recreational marijuana because medical marijuana is only used to combat disease and therefore is not a substitute for booze.  Yeah, right.  A university study using retail scanner data from 2006 – 2015 found that alcohol sales fell 15% in jurisdictions that legalized medical marijuana.  For the sake of emphasis – this was a study of legal medical marijuana on alcohol sales, not legalized recreational use of marijuana.

The Oregon Trail.  The relationship between legalized recreational marijuana and liquor sales has been studied in Oregon.  In that state, recreational marijuana use is legal at the state level but localities have the right to ban it in their jurisdictions.  A study comparing Oregon localities that allow marijuana sales vs those that don’t found the growth rate of liquor sales for the “booze only” places was faster than in the “booze and reef” areas.  Early days.  Only one year of data.

Miller Time.  A 10-K disclosure by the Molson-Coors company cites legalized cannabis sales as a potential risk to their business. “Although the ultimate impact is currently unknown, the emergence of legal cannabis in certain U.S. states and Canada may result in a shift of discretionary income away from our products or a change in consumer preferences away from beer. As a result, a shift in consumer preferences away from our products or beer or a decline in the consumption of our products could result in a material adverse effect on our business and financial results.”  Four months after citing the business risks of legalized marijuana Molson-Coors announced they are considering the sale of ganja infused beer in Canada.

Rocky Mountain High.  Earlier this year the Aspen Times reported that Aspen’s legal marijuana dispensaries outsold its liquor stores in 2017.  As far as anyone knows, this is the first time such a shift has happened.  I’ll wager it will be far from the last time.

— Don Rippert

Hold On… Marijuana Arrests Going Up?

Map credit: The Virginia Mercury

There is more and more talk in Virginia about decriminalizing marijuana, yet marijuana arrests have increased in the past year, notes the Virginia Mercury.  What’s going on?

The Mercury quotes Dave Albo, a former state delegate and Northern Virginia lawyer Virginia who frequently represents clients on marijuana-possession charges: “My unscientific explanation for this dramatic increase is people are just brazen about it now. They just don’t think of it as illegal, so they’re more apt to carry it around in their pocket, more apt to have it in their car and more apt to sit and smoke it with their friends.”

Sounds plausible to me.