Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Marijuana Decriminalization in Virginia: Issues and Recommendations for Regulators

Photo credit: Snopes

By Don Rippert

Ready, fire, aim. In Virginia, it seems likely that the Democratic Party’s control of the General Assembly and Governorship will result in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. This legislation will likely be passed in the 2020 session and go into law next summer. But what are the details of decriminalization? What specific policy decisions should our lawmakers consider when drafting the decriminalization legislation? Failing to consider these issues in advance of the legislative session could usher in a repeat of the shambolic attempt to legalize casino gambling in Virginia

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Virginia marijuana reform: Outlook for 2020

By Don Rippert

Cannabis certitude. The seemingly inexorable march toward legalized marijuana in the United States continues unabated. A poll of 9,900 American adults conducted by the Pew Research Center from September 3 – 15, 2019 found that 67% of the respondents thought cannabis should be legalized. That’s five percentage points higher than Pew’s last poll on the subject conducted in 2018. Many state legislatures are acting on behalf of their constituents. Legal weed sales began last Sunday in Michigan and will commence on New Year’s Day in Illinois. At the federal level the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill legalizing marijuana at the federal level. As of today 33 states have legalized medical marijuana and 11 states have approved the sale of recreational marijuana to adults. Six more states seem very likely to make decisions on legalizing recreational marijuana in 2020 – Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota. As legal marijuana becomes big business pundits are predicting the future of legal weed. Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics believe that medical marijuana will be legalized in every state by 2024 and recreational marijuana will be legal in 20 states by that date. Virginia is not among the 20.

Weed in the Old Ancient Pre-historic Dominion. Virginia is one of 15 states where marijuana is fully illegal. (Note: I do not count CBD oil sales as partial legalization). The first step on the long road to legalization is usually decriminalization. In 2018 Virginia’s General Assembly considered a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was killed along a purely party line vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.  In 2019 another decriminalization bill was considered. Virginia’s Republican leadership in the General Assembly couldn’t muster the minimal courage to take the 2019 bill to the full committee and killed it in sub-committee. Later that year the Republicans got their heads handed to them in the General Assembly election. What a surprise.  Now Democrats hold a trifecta in Virginia with control of the House, Senate and Governorship.  Once again, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) is the patron for proposed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, this year unlike the past, Ebbin’s party is in control.

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Virginia Judges, 1; Artificial Intelligence, 0

by James A. Bacon

It sounded like such a good idea: Develop a criminal-sentencing algorithm to help judges identify felons least likely to reoffend and either give them shorter jail sentences or divert them to probation or substance-abuse treatment programs. Virginia created just such an algorithm in 2001. Minimizing the subjective element in sentencing, it was thought, might even reduce sentencing disparities between the races.

The results didn’t turn out entirely like people hoped. In a deep dive into the data, Megan T. Stevenson, a George Mason University professor,  and Jennifer L. Doleac, of Texas A&M, authors of, “Algorithmic Risk Assessment in the Hands of Humans,” found that the Virginia algorithm does influence outcomes: Defendants with higher risk scores got longer sentences and defendants with lower risk scores got shorter sentences. However, they found “no robust evidence that this reshuffling led to a decline in recidivism.”

While they found no evidence of an increase in racial disparities statewide, the authors did find that among the judges most likely to factor the risk scores into their sentencing decisions, there was a “relative increase in sentences.” Continue reading

Bringing Addicted Babies into the World Should Be a Crime

by James A. Bacon

When social breakdown, a drug epidemic and failed government institutions converge, this is what you get: babies like Charlee Ford (seen at left) born with opioids and marijuana in her system and diagnosed with cerebral palsy. After birth, her lungs failed for nine minutes before doctors revived her. In her short, tortured lifetime, she suffered from severe seizures. She died at an age of four months.

Graphic credit: Roanoke Times

The surging use and abuse of opioids and other illegal drugs such as methamphetamines is associated with a horrifying increase in the number of Virginia babies born addicted to drugs. Worse, these babies are usually born into totally dysfunctional families. Mothers and fathers are themselves are likely to be substance abusers, which puts the babies at high risk of abuse and neglect. Meanwhile, child protective services in Virginia are uneven in quality — some local programs, one might say, are as bureaucratically dysfunctional as the families they serve.

The Roanoke Times tells the tragic story here.  The focus is on Rockbridge County in the Shenandoah Valley. But similar stories can be found all around the state. It’s a long story but worth the investment in time.

Bacon’s bottom line: Maybe the Roanoke Times article hit me harder today than it would have previously because this weekend I visited my month-old grandson for the first time and cradled the tiny, helpless little creature in my arms. He is a lucky one, blessed by two loving, hyper-conscientious parents who will take very good care of him. Many babies are not so fortunate. Charlee’s story prompts several thoughts…. Continue reading

Inmates Need Costly Medical Care, Too

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

In the most recently completed fiscal year, the general fund cost to provide medical care to Virginia prison inmates was $221.6 million.

That is a lot of money by any measure; it exceeds the entire budget of all but a few state agencies. However, despite its size, it does not get much public attention.

Like the state budget, medical costs threaten to consume the DOC budget.  The FY 2019 expenditures constituted more than 18% of the agency’s general fund budget. Each year, the budget request for additional funding for medical services is at the top of DOC’s list. Its FY 2019 appropriation for medical services exceeded its FY 2017 appropriation by $34.8 million. For the upcoming biennium, the agency has requested an additional $21.8 million in the first year and $28.3 million in the second year. Continue reading

A Budget Cut that Should be Made

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Just to show that I am not the “tax and spend” liberal that some people may think I am, I am proposing a significant budget cut for the Governor’s office to consider in its effort to satisfy all the demands it is getting for the upcoming biennial budget. That budget item can be summed up with one numeric phrase: 599.

Long-term observers and participants in Virginia government and politics, such as Jim and Steve, know immediately what I am talking about. The 599 program provides financial aid to local governments with police departments. The program’s appropriation for the current fiscal year is $191.7 million. Its name refers to its enacting legislation: HB 599, passed by the 1979 General Assembly.

The HB 599 program should be repealed and its funding used for more pressing needs of the Commonwealth. There are several reasons for this conclusion: The rationale for the program was flawed from the beginning; the underlying distribution formula is unknowable; and the funding cannot be tied to its original, ostensible purpose, the support of law enforcement. The remainder of this post will be used to substantiate these claims. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Cloudy Day Edition

Neo-Nazies on the loose. I’ve been highly critical of Attorney General Mark Herring for spinning state crime statistics to imply that there has been a surge in white supremacist hate crimes in Virginia. But that’s not to say there aren’t hateful white supremacists residing in the the state. The Daily Beast describes how an FBI crackdown on the so-called “Atomwaffen Division,” which it describes as a “homicidal neo-Nazi guerilla organization,” has netted criminal charges against two alleged members of the group’s Virginia cell. In June, the FBI arrested Brian Patricks Baynes, of Fairfax, on gun possession charges. And in September, the bureau arrested 21-year-old Andrew Jon Thomasberg, of McLean. The white-supremacist threat is real, and it must be taken seriously. But let’s not blow that threat out of proportion.

The Staunton Miracle. Rural Virginia may be in an economic funk, but Virginia’s smaller metros seem to be holding up pretty well. The Staunton/Waynesboro labor market has the lowest unemployment rate of any in the state — 2.5%, according to August 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported by the News Leader. Next lowest: Charlottesville and Winchester at 2.6%, Harrisonburg at 2.7%, and Roanoke at 2.8%. Among major metros, Richmond is the lowest at 2.9%. We hear all the time — and I have perpetuated this narrative — that most of the jobs are going to the big metros. Is this true? We can’t tell from unemployment data alone. We also need to look at job creation, under-employment and workforce-participation rates. Regardless, it’s good to see that almost everyone who wants a job in small-metro Virginia seems to have one.

A voice for the voiceless. The Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a former sponsor of this blog, is making progress toward building Virginia’s first coalition to address the affordability crisis in higher education. The Virginia College Affordability Policy Council met last week to discuss solutions to problems of affordability and workforce readiness. Co-chairs include James V. Koch, former president of Old Dominion University, and Brett A. Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. The group has recruited a wide range of businesses and trade associations as members. You can view Koch’s presentation here.

Bacon Bits: River Preservation, Truth in Tuition, and Election Interference

Goat Island

Good deed of the day. Riverside Outfitters, which provides guided kayak, raft, tube, and paddleboard trips, has paid $11,000 to purchase Goat Island, a one-acre islet in the James River. The outfitting company will make the island openly available for public use as a destination for canoers and paddleboarders, reports Richmond BizSense. The company plans to rid non-native plants from the islet and, if legal, bring back some goats, but has no plans to develop it. The James River may not be as big and powerful as other rivers, but it is more beautiful than most. While other metropolitan develop their riverfronts, the Richmond region has moved to preserve the James as an environmental and recreational treasure. Smart move!

Truth in tuition. Randolph College has slashed its list price for tuition, room, and board from $54,101 to $36,000. Pursuing a high-tuition, high-discount model, the small liberal arts college near Lynchburg had been discounting heavily from that price. But administrators concluded that the high sticker price was scaring away potential applicants, reports the News & Advance. Not realizing that the average discount rate for freshmen at private colleges averages more than 50%, many families don’t even bother applying to schools with high list prices. Randolph College, which has 620 students enrolled, hopes to increase the entering class by 5% yearly over the next five years.

Dodge Challenger has become a verb. Daniel McMahon of Brandon, Fla., has been arrested for charges relating to cyber-stalking and threats that led to an African-American activist, Don Gathers, dropping out of a race for Charlottesville City Council. McMahon, a white supremacist, “was motivated by racial animus and used his social-media accounts to threaten and intimidate a potential candidate for elective office,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen, in a statement. “Hey Antifa, it’s simple,” McMahon wrote online, reports the Washington Post. “Wanna know how to not get Dodge Challenged or shot? Don’t attack Right Wingers ever.” James Fields, the white supremacist who killed Heather Heyer during the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville two years ago, drove a Dodge Challenger. Disgusting.

— JAB

Good News, Bad News on Crime Trends

Getty Images

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Each year the state produces six-year forecasts of state and local criminal offender populations. These forecasts are ultimately adopted by an interagency, inter-disciplinary committee, chaired by the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

The process of producing the forecasts is fairly complicated and stretches over several months, involving numerous meetings. I will provide a more detailed description later when the final forecasts are agreed upon and released, which will be in October.

In the meantime, one of the main benefits of the process, aside from the forecasts themselves, is a comprehensive look at criminal justice trends in Virginia. This information was gathered from the research of analysts in several agencies and presented to the Offender Population Forecast Policy Committee in late August. The presentation went into a great detail and consisted of over 70 Power Point slides. Needless to say, I will limit this report to a few of the most salient charts.  Continue reading

Virginia’s Human Trafficking Horror

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s elected officials don’t agree about much. But they do share one common interest across the partisan divide: fighting human trafficking. Even in our hyper-partisan world, Democrats and Republicans still can unite over the proposition that sexual enslavement and exploitation is a bad thing.

In October of 2018, the Human Trafficking Institute released a report in which Virginia ranked sixth in the nation for active human trafficking cases. That comes from the Virginia Tech Collegiate Times. According to Sen Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that there were more than 950 reported cases of human trafficking between December 2007 and June 2017.

Do a Google search for “Virginia human trafficking,” however, and see what results you get. Most reporting on the subject comes from local TV stations. Virginia’s major newspapers have produced almost nothing worthy of note. Indeed, in the top four pages of search results, the only report listed from the Richmond Times-Dispatch was an article describing how the Henrico County police chief debunked social media reports of human trafficking in Short Pump. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Numerological Edition

$6.5 billion. That’s how much Dominion Energy estimates it will cost Virginia ratepayers if the state signs up with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program designed to reduce CO2 emissions. The utility said it would have to shutter four coal-fired power plants and replace their generating capacity with additional solar, natural gas, and/or possibly a pump-storage facility in Tazewell County, reports the Daily Press. The figure exceeds the $3.3-$5.9 billion previously estimated by State Corporation Commission staff, and conflicts with arguments by others that under the RGGI electric bills actually would go down.

Thirty percent. That is the percentage of police-involved-shooting incidents that local police and sheriffs departments failed to report to the Virginia State Police for compilation on its annual Crime in Virginia reports, concludes the (Lynchburg) News & Advance in an investigation of the data since mid-2016. (In the 2018 Crime in Virginia report, state police listed 28 state-involved shootings.) Law enforcement officials attributed the missing data to routine errors and confusion over recent changes in reporting requirements. Civil rights advocates want to expand the data reported to include the age, race, and gender of the victim.

14,000 acres. That’s how much farm and forest the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund (VFPF) has conserved since 2008. The Fund surpassed the 100th-tract mark this summer, an event that Gov. Ralph Northam celebrated with a visit to Messick’s Farm Market in Fauquier County last week, reports the Culpeper Star-Exponent. The governor touted the value role of conservation in promoting agriculture, tourism, and forestry, Virginia’s three largest industries. The VFPF has helped 16 local governments finance purchase-of-development rights for 102 easements on 13,917 acres. The purchases cost $32.8 million. The preservation fund provided $11.9 million; the rest came from local government and other sources.

Dude in a 7-Eleven Shoots Two Robbers, Kills One….

Store clerk Barrie Engel and the silhouette of a Virginia Beach man who shot two robbers appear in this Virginian-Pilot photo.

A 37-year-old Virginia Beach man was buying a Big Gulp at a 7-Eleven when two armed robbers burst into the store. The clerk and intruders started arguing and tensions quickly escalated. Worried for the clerk’s safety, the bystander pulled out a concealed weapon and fired, hitting one robber in the neck and the other twice in the chest, killing him.

When the police arrived a few moments later, they placed the shooter in handcuffs and hauled him down to the station. But prosecutors declined to file charges. The store clerk, Barrie Engel, thinks the man was a hero. “It was a blessing that he was there at that time,” she told the Virginian-Pilot. “It could have turned out a lot different. It could have been us that died.”

As the debate over gun control rages, an argument we hear frequently from gun-rights advocates is that Americans have a right to self-defense and that an armed population acts as a deterrent to violence crime. Does this incident support or refute their argument? Continue reading

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