Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Cats Laying Down with Dogs

When former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli agrees with Governor Terry McAuliffe’s proposed criminal justice reforms, it’s a sign that conservatives and liberals actually might be able to overcome their differences and get something useful done.

In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Cuccinelli made the case for raising the felony theft threshold from $200, tied for lowest in the nation, and to stop suspending a driver’s license for not paying court fines and fees.

If someone steals an item worth more than $200, the crime becomes a grand larceny and a felony rather than a misdemeanor. The purchasing power of $200 when Virginia’s threshold was set in 1980 is greater than $500 when adjusted for inflation. The Virginia justice system should focus its resources on more serious offenders, Cuccinelli says, not toss nonviolent youths into juvenile correction facilities at an average cost of $150,000 per head.

Likewise, suspending drivers licenses for unpaid court fines and fees makes it difficult for hundreds of thousands of Virginians to maintain gainful unemployment and repay those very same court fines and fees. “This has become government’s version of squeezing blood from a turnip, and it is a fight in which conservatives in Virginia can work to limit government abuse,” writes Cuccinelli.

Reforms have been proposed in the past, but they have been blocked by conservative Republicans in the legislature. I’m not sure what their objections are. Perhaps don’t want to be perceived as “soft on crime.” Perhaps Cuccinelli, a firebrand conservative, will give them the ideological cover they need to change positions.

It’s fine to crack down on violent and hard-core criminals — throw the book at them, as far as I’m concerned. But we should make it easier for petty criminals and those unable to pay their court costs to recover from their mistakes and become productive, tax-paying citizens. Raising the felony theft threshold and restoring licenses to drivers who lost them for non-driving offenses are two very good places to start.

Thinking Sensibly about Virginia State Police Salaries

Lawmakers proposes big increase for Virginia State Police salaries.

Virginia State Police graduates. Lawmakers propose a big increase in starting salaries. Photo credit: InsideNova.com.

Virginia State Police troopers would receive a $7,000 pay raise — a 22.3% boost for starting salaries — under a budget proposal that also would provide a 3% pay raise for all state employees, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The dramatic pay hike comes in response to deteriorating morale and a surge in state trooper departures.

Is such a big pay raise justified in the midst of a budget crunch in which lawmakers are forced to cut other programs?

Clearly, the state police have a massive problem. In November, the agency had 257 vacancies in a sworn force of 2,148, according to the Daily Press. Over the past few years, the state police averaged six departures monthly, reports the T-D. That number increased to 13 per month in last year and shot up to 22 in just the first 20 days of 2017.

By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, paying 2,150 officers an extra $7,000 each will cost the state about $15 million per year. That is a considerable sum. However, if the pay increase staunches the loss of manpower, it will be offset by a reduced training costs. The Times-Dispatch article notes that it costs the City of Richmond about $100,000 to get a recruit trained and on the street. Assuming that the cost to the state police is roughly comparable, and assuming the pay hike reduces the number of departures back to the pre-crisis norm of six per month, the state police will need to train 80 to 90 fewer troopers each year. That would represent a savings of $8 million to $9 million. (I have made several assumptions here, which undoubtedly can be refined, but you get the gist.)

Thus, while the $15 million departmental pay raise will not fully pay for itself through reduced turnover, the adjusted cost when taking training expenses into account will be considerably lower.

Are there other ways to offset the expense? Presumably, some state police functions are more critical than others, and some offer more law enforcement bang for the buck than others. Could the troopers be relieved of low value-added tasks that soak up manpower?

For example, lawmakers enacted a policy last year as part of a bipartisan compromise on gun control, in which state police conduct background checks at gun shows. Implementing that policy cost $300,000 annually to pay for three full-time civilian positions, as the Times-Dispatch reports here. In its first six months, the program resulted in only one person being denied the purchase of a weapon at 41 Virginia gun shows. The man was wanted for failing to appear before a grand jury in September. Was that one detention worth $300,000?

Six months may not be sufficient time to fairly judge the effectiveness of the program. But that’s the kind of question we need to be asking. Instead of stroking the state police a $15 million check, legislators should ask the top brass to enumerate all the tasks state troopers are called upon to perform. How much manpower do those jobs require? What value do they provide? Can we reduce the number of troopers on payroll without harming public safety?

It seems clear that we need to increase Virginia State Police salaries, and equally clear that the state will recoup some of that expense through reduced training expenditures. However, we should not assume that the only way to pay for higher salaries is to pump more money into the agency. Perhaps we can scale back tasks of marginal value. Unfortunately, I see no indication in the news coverage of this issue that anyone has even considered that alternative.

Headline of the Day

Headline from today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Lakeside man charged in rape of 9-year-old boy; roommate charged earlier this month with bestiality.”

File that story under, “What’s this country coming to?”

Thinking Correctly about Corrections

Source: "State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2016."

Source: “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2016.”

by James A. Bacon

In 2015 the Commonwealth of Virginia spent $1.13 billion operating state prisons holding 25,000 inmates. Is the state spending too much imprisoning people, or too little? Could it spend the money better? Those are questions we need to ask as Virginia faces a future of chronic fiscal stress. As I have blogged previously, we need to re-think state government from top to bottom, stem to stern.

James V. Koch, president emeritus of Old Dominion University and the lead author of “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2016,” applies economic thinking to the way Virginia deals with crime, incarceration and rehabilitation. His analysis doesn’t fit traditional “liberal” or “conservative” views of the problem, which makes it all the more worth thinking about.

The modern era of prison administration in Virginia began in 1994 when, at the urging of then-Governor George Allen, the General Assembly abolished parole for violent offenders. A tougher parole law, combined with a three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, precipitated a surge in Virginia’s prison population as offenders served longer sentences. The cost of running the prison system increased from 2.82% of total state expenditures in 1993 to 3.79% in 2002, making it one of the fastest-growing categories of state spending. Although absolute costs have continued to increase, prison’s share of state spending declined to 3.21% in 2015 as crime rates fell and the size of the prison population leveled off.

A central issue that Koch addresses is to what extent the get-tough approach on sentencing and parole contributed to the decline in crime rates. Are we keeping more offenders than necessary in prison and running up the cost of corrections more than we need to?

His review of the literature led Koch to conclude that “incapacitation” — taking criminals off the streets — is one of several factors accounting for Virginia’s decline in crime. “The available reputable research concerning the determinants of crime rates does not point to a single cause for the declines we have observed,” he writes. “Even so, the consensus is that increased incarceration probably [accounts for] 10 to 15 percent of observed declines in these rates.”

Here’s where it gets interesting:

It seems likely that the law of diminishing returns applies to law enforcement and imprisonment. Arrests focused on the most serious crimes and habitual criminals likely will reduce crime rates; however, as the volume of arrests increases, less serious crimes receive more attention and less dangerous criminals are arrested. Hence, each incremental arrest generates a progressively smaller decline in crime rates.

What this says to me is that the incapacitation strategy does work, but it needs to be fine-tuned.

Virginia spends $28,000 per inmate on average to operate its prisons, according to Koch’s data. Presumably, the cost of incarcerating less dangerous inmates in low- and medium-security prisoners is somewhat lower, but let’s use that number for purposes of comparison. What is the cost of operating an outpatient substance abuse program? Half? Two-thirds? And how does the recidivism rate from substance abuse programs compare to the recidivism rates for prison? If Virginia could take 5,000 substance abusers out of prison and treat them in outpatient programs cost $14,000 a year, could the state could save $70 million — and turn more offenders into productive citizens in the bargain?

Those numbers are purely illustrative. But they provide an idea of the kind of economic thinking Virginia needs to apply to its corrections system.

Virginia’s Meth Epidemic Is No Joke

meth_epidemic

Imbibing crystal meth. Image credit: KPBS.org

by James A. Bacon

My son, now in college, has a running joke when his mom and I call to see what he’s been up to. Not much, he deadpans, except for cooking up some crystal meth. An amusing gag for an affluent suburban family where no one imbibes anything stronger than a cabernet sauvignon. But not so funny in Southwest Virginia, ground zero for Virginia’s methamphetamine epidemic.

I’ve just finished reading August Wallmeyer’s book, “The Extremes of Virginia,” which describes the social and economic challenges of Virginia’s poorest rural regions. Much of the material is familiar to regular readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, but I found his discourse on Virginia’s meth epidemic to be particularly helpful in understanding a region where I spent several years as a young journalist but have not often visited since then.

Fatal drug overdoses occur everywhere in Virginia but have spiked in the rapidly decaying coal-mining region of Southwest Virginia, the Eastern Shore and a slew of counties on Northern Virginia’s exurban fringe. In the far Southwest, meth production has risen much like illegal distilleries did during Prohibition, as a cottage industry. In 2009, writes Wallmeyer, “meth production went mainstream and big time, when the ‘shake and bake’ method was brought to Virginia, courtesy of a waitress who had moved from Indiana.”

Knowledge of how to cook meth passes from word to mouth. “A guy in Tennessee teaches someone in Bristol, who teaches someone in Abingdon, who teaches someone in Marion, and so forth,” he says. Because the drug can be concocted from legally obtained materials found in cold medications, batteries and household products, anyone can make it. The number of known meth labs in Virginia has increased from 28 in 2009 to more than 400 in 2014.

The drug produces a euphoric “high” but destroys dopamine receptors in the brain, diminishing all sensations of pleasure. Seeking to retain the high, meth addicts increase consumption, which is not hard to do because meth is a relatively inexpensive drug. Recovery and rehabilitation is extremely difficult because it takes as long as 18 months for the body to repair its dopamine receptors — far longer than an addict’s typical stint in jail or time spent in a 6- to 12-week rehab program. The meth culture is so deeply ingrained now that someone coming out of jail or rehab returns home only to find himself surrounded by other meth users and producers — mirroring the drug problem that has long plagued inner cities.

Widespread drug use creates social problems that magnify the social and economic problems of Southwest Virginia, where the coal economy has collapsed and there is no other industry (other than meth production) moving in to replace it. With increasing regularity, notes Wallmeyer, job seekers are failing drug tests. “There are reports of 50 percent failure rates for people taking job-related drug tests in Southwest Virginia.” That’s devastating to anyone trying to recruit industry to the area. When a region can’t sell the education and skills of its workforce, which are severely lagging in Southwest Virginia, all it has to sell is its work ethic. But if half the workers are drug addicts, economic developers can’t even sell that. In a vicious cycle, the lack of job opportunities creates a pessimism and despair that makes it easier to fall prey to drug abuse.

What can be done? Wallmeyer’s account doesn’t offer much grounds for optimism. But he does present one concrete idea from Jason Robinson, a 20-year state police veteran working in the Southwest Virginia drug task force, and that is to go after the smurfs. In meth parlance, smurfs are the buyers who round up the ingredients that go into meth, the most critical of which is pseudoephedrine, which appears in cold medicines such as Tylenol, Sudafed, Claritin and Allegra. Robinson advocates creating a meth offender registry of anyone convicted of meth-related crimes to prevent smurfs from purchasing meth ingredients.

“We have a prescription monitoring database, but physicians aren’t required to use it,” he tells Wallmeyer. “Lots do, but not all. We have all this technology, but don’t take advantage of it.”

The state also needs to address the mismatch between drug rehabilitation programs, geared for 6- to 12-week treatments, and the long-term nature of meth addiction. Writes Wallmeyer: “Virginia needs to decide either to provide longer-term drug rehabilitation facilities, or to accept the 93 percent recidivism rate, with its attendant consequences and public costs.”

Bacon’s bottom line: One aspect of the meth addiction that I wished Wallmeyer had explored was the impact of substance abuse on the family and child rearing. I would imagine that meth addicts do not make good spouses and good parents, and I would hypothesize that the meth epidemic is ravaging already-fragile households, creating abysmal environments for children who, in addition to coping with material poverty, must survive absentee parents, domestic violence, child neglect and a panoply of problems that lead to poor academic achievement, a propensity for dropping out of school and general failure as an adult. Drugs, joblessness and social dysfunction make a destructive combination.

Virginia’s Political Class as Criminal Class

morris

Morris

Del. Richard L. Morris, R-Suffolk, has been charged with 14 counts of violence against members of his household, including offenses of cruelty and injuries toward a minor, as well as assault and battery against a female relative, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Three of the charges stemmed from allegations that Morris had physically assaulted a boy relative Sept. 16, causing “injuries consistent with excessive physical discipline.” Suffolk police made contact with the boy, writes the T-D, after receiving a complaint from Child Protective Services. Additional charges arose from an alleged assault last year on an adult woman in the Morris household. The alleged victims were not identified by name or relation.

Morris is married and has nine children. Ironically, according to Morris’s website biography, he is treasurer and finance director of the Southeastern Hampton Roads CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), “a group of volunteers that represent abused and neglected children in court and advocates for their needs.”

I’m guessing these charges will make it hard for Morris to run on a family values platform.

— JAB

Don’t Short-Change Our Troopers

state_policeby James A. Bacon

The Virginia State Police face a severe manpower shortage: Veteran police are resigning faster than recruits can be trained. In the first nine months of this year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 103 sworn employees and 76 civilian employees have left the department. Meanwhile, applications to join the state police have fallen 49% since February.

Excluding police in training, the department is 220 troopers short. In the Richmond area, state police have lost 11 troopers from the 40-trooper allotment for Area 8. Staffing frequently dips below the “safe and acceptable minimum” of 18 troopers needed for each 24-hour period, according to a memo written by Col. W. Steven Flaherty, state police superintendent.

Applications for law enforcement are trending downward nationally, said Flaherty, but the problem is accentuated in Virginia by noncompetitive starting salaries.

“Our troopers are taking up collections for other troopers who cannot afford to buy their own lunch,” one commander wrote to another state police official in an email. “They are risking their lives every day and cannot afford to eat. What does that say?”

Since 2006, reports the T-D, the state police have experienced a $94.2 million reduction in General Fund budget resources. Additional cuts under consideration would hack out another $13.1 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: While reading this article this morning, a story appeared on the television news about an inexplicable and horrifying police shooting of an unarmed black man in Oklahoma who appeared not to be threatening or resisting in any way. Now, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to be a police officer never knowing if the subject of a stop will resist violently. Nationally, the number of police shootings is up markedly this year. But the juxtaposition of the two stories tells me that we need more than ever to hire the highest-caliber police officers who can exercise good judgment and maintain their cool in tense, ambiguous situations. And we don’t accomplish that aim by neglecting pay raises and slashing departmental budgets year after year.

Budget makers face hard choices in allocating scarce resources. I do not envy their job. But law enforcement is a core function of government. If the state police budget is to be cut, then the department’s mission must be redefined to align it with the resources available. Stressing troopers by stretching the force too thin cannot possibly end well.

A Measured Approach to Restoring Felons’ Civil Rights

by James A. Bacon

habeeb

Del. Gregg Habeeb

Virginia Republicans have excoriated Governor Terry McAuliffe for endeavoring to issue a blanket restoration of civil rights to ex-felons. So, what’s their alternative?

First and most important, Republicans are submitting their proposals as bills that can be reviewed, debated, and amended. The process is transparent, and the public will have a chance to weigh in.

Second, a legislative package announced by Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem sets different standards for violent and non-violent offenders. Explains Habeeb in a press release (no link):

The constitutional amendment would allow non-violent offenders, as defined by the General Assembly, to automatically receive their political rights after they have completed their sentence, including all supervised or unsupervised probation, and paid all fines, fees, court costs, and restitution. Violent offenders would be allowed to apply to the governor two years after they have completed their sentence and any probation. The governor would be allowed to restore rights on an individual basis after they have paid their fines, fees, court costs, and restitution.

Everyone deserves an opportunity at redemption, but the nature and severity of the crimes should be taken into consideration and a second chance should only come after they have completed their entire sentence, which includes paying their debts to the justice system and to victims.

The package, which is co-sponsored by De. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, and Peter Farrell, R-Henrico, also would restore the right to own a firearm to non-violent offenders.

There’s a lot to debate here, but I’d wager this package comes closer than a blanket restoration of rights to reflecting the sentiments of most Virginians. But we really won’t know for sure until we subject the proposal to the legislative process. It’s called democracy. Some people still believe in the concept.

Dude, Really?

opera_singer
Opera singer Krista Clouse was arrested last week by Alexandria police officers for performing on the street. Well, technically, she was arrested for using a speaker system without a permit. City Manager Mark B. Jinks later apologized for the way the situation was  handled, noting that Clouse should have been issued a written order to stop singing. The Washington Post has the story here.

In my view, Clouse’s real offense wasn’t singing in public, it was singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” in public. The only thing worse would have been belting out the score from “Cats.” But you can’t arrest someone for singing Andrew Lloyd Weber!

— JAB

Virginia’s New Debtor’s Prison

speeding_ticketby James A. Bacon

Damian Stinnie, a 24-year-old African American living in Charlottesville, grew up in the foster care system in Virginia but managed to graduate from high school with a 3.9 GPA. Living with his twin since aging out of foster care, he has worked nearly full-time as a sales clerk at Walmart and, after losing that job, at Abercrombie & Fitch, earning minimum wage, or about $300 per week.

In 2013, Stinnie was convicted of four traffic citations, resulting in fines and charges of $1,002. When he was unable to pay, his driver’s license was suspended, and another $501 in costs imposed. Not knowing that his license was suspended, he continued driving. Stopped again, he was cited for driving without a license. Later that year, he was hospitalized for lymphoma. Unable to attend the court hearing, he was found guilty in absentia of driving without a license and ordered to pay another $117 in court costs and a $150 fine. And the story of woe, cited in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center, just gets worse. Read it and weep.

An estimated 940,000 Virginians, disproportionately minorities, have a suspended license for nonpayment of court costs and fines. Not every case may be as severe as Stinnie’s, but thousands are trapped in a downward spiral. Denied a license, they find it difficult to find and maintain a job. If they drive illegally, they rack up even more court costs and fines.

“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, is quoted as saying in the Reason Foundation’s Hit & Run blog. “Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses.”

Last month the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s policy of suspending drivers licenses indefinitely for unpaid court debts. States the lawsuit:

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts. …

In order to fund its basic operations, the Commonwealth has steadily increased the amounts that may be taxes as costs against convicted criminal and traffic defendants and tacked on various additional fees.

Assessments against criminal and traffic court defendants have risen from $281.5 million in fiscal year 1998 to $618.8 million in 2014.

Bacon’s bottom line: Clearly, the system has broken down. Thousands of Virginians are caught in a vicious cycle of indebtedness to the courts. The system needs to be reformed.

But how do we reform it? That gets tricky. The unfortunate Mr. Stimmie did have a bad habit of piling up traffic tickets. Do we abandon the practice of fining people who violate traffic laws? Do we scale the size of the fines according to peoples’ incomes, as they I believe they do in some Scandinavian countries? Do we stop requiring people to pay court costs? If we do so, who does pay — the general public? Do lawbreakers get off scot free and law-abiding citizens pick up the tab?

Whatever the answer — and there are no easy ones — we need to do something. Particularly heinous, insofar as it does occur, is the practice of jacking up fines and penalties as a substitute for taxes. If there is a social justice cause that could unite liberals, libertarians and perhaps even conservatives, this would be it.

Update: Correction made to Damian Stimmie’s pay at Abercrombie & Fitch.