Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Best Gun Violence Idea Not Proposed in VA?

Grandstanding with guns on the House of Delegates floor. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown)

by Steve Haner

The most effective gun violence prevention idea presented to the Virginia State Crime Commission Monday was one seldom discussed in the state:  Add violent misdemeanors to the list of convictions that prevent gun purchases from a licensed dealer.

Four states, including Maryland, have that provision and a Boston University study found it has lowered the firearms homicide rate better than 25 percent in those states. Right now, extending the ban from felons to violent misdemeanants is not among the scores of bills pending at Virginia’s special session on gun violence.

One of the least effective proposals, but one always at the top of many lists?  Prohibiting the sale of so-called assault or assault-style rifles.  The research on that is clear, Boston University research fellow Claire Boine said in one of the most useful evidence-based presentations from the long day. You can see her slides here and the full study hereContinue reading

Gun Issues Return to Capitol Monday, Tuesday

by Steve Haner

Proposed firearms regulations will pack a General Assembly meeting room Monday and Tuesday, and for that portion of the population not already locked into an ideological position either way, it could be useful to pay attention.

The Republican majorities have taken some political bashing for failing to act on the flood of proposals, many previously seen and rejected, that showed up when Governor Ralph Northam sought to railroad them through a hasty special session after the Virginia Beach shooting.  But the ideas are going to get a better hearing at the Crime Commission next week than they would have when introduced.  Continue reading

Marijuana legalization in Colorado: the good, the bad and the ugly

High there!  As Virginia politicians scramble to stake out positions on reforming marijuana laws in the Old Dominion ahead of this November’s elections, it is useful to look at the actual experience in Colorado after five years of legal recreational marijuana sales.  There is no universally accepted source of truth regarding the success or failure of Colorado’s marijuana legalization. However, many articles have been written regarding Colorado’s experience and the general perception seems to be positive albeit with some significant concerns. As Virginia moves down the road of marijuana reform its political class would be well advised to heed the lessons of those who have already gone down that path. Continue reading

Recidivism Revisited

Sussex I State Prison

As has been noted in previous posts on this blog (here and here), the latest three-year recidivism rate of offenders released from the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) was the lowest in the nation. In fact, DOC had the lowest rate in the nation for the last three reporting periods.  DOC can justly be proud of this record.

Nevertheless, a closer look at the data reveals some troubling trends.  Before delving into this data, in order to understand the data and ensuing discussion, there are some terms that need defining and clarifying: Continue reading

2018: Murders Fall, Assaults and Sex Crimes Nudge Higher


Virginia media gave scant attention to the publication of the 2018 Crime in Virginia report — perhaps because there were no dramatic headlines to be dredged from the statistics. The most encouraging news is that the murder rate declined measurably — from 5.37 murders per 100,000 population in 2017 to 4.59 murders in 2018 — thus continuing a reversal of a five-year upswing earlier in the decade.

The numbers for aggravated assault (assaults resulting in an injury) aren’t as reassuring. The rate per 100,000 nudged up to 120 in 2018 from 119 the previous year. Taking a longer-term perspective: After an encouraging decline in the late 2000s, the rate of aggravated assaults has leveled off, showing no improvement since 2011. In some ways this number is more meaningful than the murder rate — Virginians are about 25 times more likely to be assaulted than murdered. Continue reading

Virginia-Based Capital One Hacked

Who let the dogs data out?  McLean-based Capital One has been hacked in one of the largest data breaches ever. A single hacker with apparent mental health issues managed to copy 100 million credit card applications and accounts. The seeming ease with which the hacker compromised what should have been ironclad security is shocking. The bank’s stumbling and fumbling explanations of what happened have not helped Capital One’s cause.

The hacker who couldn’t shoot straight.  The FBI has arrested 33-year-old Seattle resident Paige Thompson in connection with the data breach. Ms Thompson, who goes by the online name of “erratic,” made so many mistakes that her capture was tantamount to turning herself in. Slate reports, “According to a federal indictment, Thompson posted the data she pilfered on her GitHub profile on April 21, where she had also uploaded her résumé with her full name listed and details about her employment history.” Erratic indeed … not exactly up to the standards of Frank Abagnale. Ms. Thompson also posted her interest in euthanizing her cat and committing herself to a mental institution on social media. Continue reading

Differences in Arrest Rates for Marijuana Offenses across Virginia Localities

Data exhaust. In a relatively recent BR post “Marijuana arrests and racism in Virginia (especially Arlington County)” I examined the disparity between black and white Virginians when it comes to arrests for marijuana possession. My conclusion that African-American Virginians are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession came from data generated by a VCU Capital News Service study on the matter.  Helpfully, the VCU / CNS article provided a link to a spreadsheet containing the raw data (you can download the same spreadsheet from the source link under the Datawrapper graphic). As I’ve continued to examine the VCU / CNS data I’ve noticed that it’s not just your race that affects the odds of being arrested for marijuana possession.  Where you are in Virginia matters too.  A lot. Continue reading

True: Marijuana Arrests in Virginia Still Climbing

Based on data from the latest Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia” report, Attorney General Mark R. Herring recently noted that Virginia arrests for marijuana-related charges increased 3.5% in 2018, capping off a tripling of marijuana-related arrests since 2002.

“While other states are moving to a more sensible approach to cannabis, Virginia is still moving in the wrong direction. It makes absolutely no sense,”Herring said in a press release. “Marijuana arrests are now at their highest level in at least two decades and maybe ever, meaning that even more Virginians, especially young people and people of color, are being saddled with criminal records that can drastically affect their lives. Now is the time to put a stop to this costly, unfair, and ineffective approach, and to pursue a better, smarter, fairer course.”

Yesterday I promised to take a closer look at the crime data to see if Herring’s representation of the marijuana-related arrest trends is fair. As far as I can tell, it is. But the conclusions he draws may not be. Continue reading

Police Antisocial Behavior, Not Addictions

It’s one thing to be intoxicated — another to pass out on a public park bench.

In an 8-7 vote, a federal appeals court has struck down a Virginia law punishing “habitual” drunks. The law targeted homeless people struggling with alcoholism, thus “criminalizing an illness,” reports the Washington Post. Further, the court found the law to be unconstitutionally vague.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. Alcohol addiction is an illness, and money might well be better spent providing treatment to homeless drunks rather than incarcerating them. On the other hand, the law provided local police a tool for maintaining public order. Eliminating the law invites drunks and derelicts to occupy public spaces where they might infringe upon the rights of others.

To my mind, it is crucial to distinguish between the illness and the behavior — and this applies to intoxication with marijuana and other drugs as well as alcohol. While addiction should not be a crime, police should address public intoxication when a person’s behavior becomes threatening or disruptive.

In perusing the Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia 2018” report, I note the following numbers (combining figures for adults and juvenile): Continue reading

A Closer Look at the 2018 Hate Crime Data

The Virginia State Police have published their Crime in Virginia update for 2018, and it is worth noting what Attorney General Mark R. Herring is focusing on in a press release issued today — the fact that marijuana arrests increased 3.5% last year, more than tripling since 1999. No mention of hate crimes.

Last year Herring launched his bid for the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination with a roadshow decrying a supposed surge in white supremacist hate crimes. But the number of total hate crimes in Virginia, including those allegedly perpetrated by whites and those allegedly perpetrated against blacks, declined last year, continuing a long-term downward trend.

Not only were there fewer hate crimes reported in Virginia last year, most of them were minor in nature. None were homicides, only one was arson, and only seven were classified as aggravated assault. Given how elected officials and the media have magnified the issue of race and ethnicity in the public discourse today, the fact that race- and ethnic-based hate crimes declined in the Old Dominion last year suggests that the public attitudes and behaviors are not nearly as polarized as those of the political class. Continue reading

2018 Hate Crimes Down

Looks like Attorney General Mark Herring will have to come up with a new campaign theme in his run for governor.  It’s bad enough that he got caught up in the blackface scandal. Now the central premise of his campaign launch — that the nation was in the grip of a surge of white supremacist violence — rings more hollow than ever.

The Virginia State Police has issued its 2018 Crime in Virginia report, and sadly for Herring (but good for the rest of us), the number of reported hate crimes was only 161 — down from 202 the previous year. The number of anti-black hate crimes fell to 62 from 68 the previous year.

The 2017 hate crime surge hyped by Herring turned out to be a blip in a long-term decline. The fact is, despite the best effort of politicians to stir up racial grievances, Americans and Virginians get along pretty well with one another.

Update: I updated some of these numbers when I returned from vacation and re-gained access to a PC.

STIs and Crime — a Moderate Connection

In recent days I have been examining correlates between various social/economic indicators and violent crime. I have found only a weak crime-poverty link and a weak crime-teen birth link, but a moderate connection between the percentage of single-parent households in a Virginia locality and violent crime. In this post, I show the connection between, of all things, Sexually Transmitted Infections and violent crime.

The graph above shows the correlation between the incidence of chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, per 100,000 population and the incidence of violence crime per 100,000, as reported by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. There is a moderate correlation — an R² of .4972, far stronger than for poverty and teenage births, and stronger even than for the incidence of single-parent households.

Correlation, of course, does not indicate causation. It would be ludicrous to suggest that catching a sexually transmitted diseases causes people to engage in violent crime. But that doesn’t render the correlation meaningless. I hypothesize that the incidence of violence and STIs have common factors behind them. Continue reading

Teen Births and Violent Crime — a Weak Connection

I’ll be the first to admit, giving me an Excel spreadsheet is the intellectual equivalent of handing a chimp a machine gun. What I don’t know about statistics would, well… it would fill a statistics textbook. But I abuse statistics less than most journalists, commentators, and politicians, who, to paraphrase renowned economist Ronald H. Coase, routinely torture the data until it confesses. I count on readers to call B.S. when they see it and modify my findings accordingly. In the spirit of exploration and with all due humility, I present the following:

In a previous post, I disputed the conventional wisdom that “poverty” is a “root cause” of violent crime. The lack of income and material resources is undoubtedly a contributing factor, playing into feedback loops of tremendous complexity, but overall the correlation between the poverty rate and the crime rate across Virginia’s 100+ localities is weak — an R² of .1802, which is considered a small effect size. There is a much stronger correlation — an R² of .4007 across Virginia localities, a moderate effect size — between the percentage of single-parent households and violent crime.

If the percentage of single-family households in a population has a moderate influence on crime, I wondered about the percentage of teen births. Continue reading

Pious Platitudes about Poverty and Crime

The City of Petersburg has the highest homicide rate in Virginia, with 53.5 killings per 100,000 residents since 2013 — exceeding Virginia’s other homicide hot spots of Danville, Hopewell, Richmond, and Portsmouth. So reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a recent article.

In talking to the RTD, Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller was reluctant to blame the violence on the city’s socioeconomic challenges. “I was raised poor and I’m police chief now,” he said. “I can’t give in and say, well, because we’re poor we can’t [behave in a more acceptable way]. I think poor people want good policing and they want [public safety] just as much as anybody does.”

Nevertheless, states the RTD, Petersburg police must contend with a litany of social ills. Twenty-seven percent of the population is in poverty, and more than half the population is enrolled in Medicaid. Median household income was less than half the state average. The graduation rate was the ninth worse in the state last year.

It is the conventional wisdom in the United States today — a belief that permeates the political establishment, journalists, and the pundit class — that poverty is a “root cause” of violence. The correlation between poverty and violent crime is so widely accepted that it needs no justification or empirical support. But is the connection as strong as the chattering class thinks it is? Continue reading

Herring Wrestles with Root Causes of Crime — and Comes up Short

Michael Herring, who has just announced his resignation as Richmond Commonwealth Attorney to become a law partner at McGuireWoods, has been an effective prosecutor. He has worked hand-in-glove with Richmond police, and the city has one of the highest murder-clearance rates of any inner-city jurisdiction in the country. But he’s become increasingly frustrated. After a lengthy period of decline, violent crimes are on the rise again.

“We couldn’t correlate it to the drug markets in the way that we used to be able to do in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s.” Herring told Community Idea Stations. “We have literally used every arrow in our quiver, that is us, the police department, city hall, to try to tamp down the violence.” Even though Richmond police emphasize community policing and building trust, Herring said residents in communities most affected by the violence are less willing to cooperate. “We would go out and say to communities, if you don’t help us, we can’t prosecute the cases and prevent the crime. A pretty simply message, right? And yet, it didn’t seem to resonate.”

In his effort to understand what was happening, Herring co-researched and co-authored an inquiry into the root causes of crime. That inquiry, “Beyond Containment,” provides few answers, advocates few remedies, and is notable for its humility in purporting to understand complex reality. “Crime, like any behavior, is a complex function of individual traits and external realities,” he and co-author Iman Shabazz write. “Economic factors, housing patterns, peer culture, school experiences, family dynamics, and health issues can all contribute to criminal behavior.” Mostly, the treatise raises questions for discussion. Continue reading