Category Archives: Crime and corrections

What happened to Bijan Ghaisar?

Tragedy in Fairfax County. Bijan Ghaisar was a McLean-based accountant and graduate of Langley High School. On Nov 17, 2017 he was driving southbound on the George Washington Parkway north of Old Town, Alexandria. His vehicle was rear-ended by an Uber driver and, for reasons nobody can understand, Ghaisar fled the scene in his Jeep. It was very strange that the victim of a rear-end collision would flee. However, things got much stranger from there.

Ghaisar’s Jeep was spotted on the GW Parkway by the U.S. Park Police and they attempted to pull Ghaisar over. Ghaisar pulled over, Park Police approached with guns drawn and Ghaisar inexplicably drove away. After a low-speed chase Ghaisar pulled over a second time, Park Police approached a second time and Ghaisar fled again. By this time Ghaisar had entered Fairfax County and a Fairfax County police cruiser (with his dash cam on) joined the pursuit. The third stop happened at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue. This stop seemed like it would be a repeat of the first two stops except that when Ghaisar started to pull away the Park Policemen fired nine shots into Ghaisar’s car hitting him four times in the head. He died 10 days later of his wounds. The video from the Fairfax County patrol car has been released. Warning: it is extremely graphic and terribly tragic. Readers should view this only after considering how it might affect them.

Investigations and avoiding conflicts of interest. In order to avoid conflicts of interest the FBI has been asked to investigate the killing and the D.C. prosecutors will bring charges if justified. While it’s admirable that the investigation and possible prosecution will he handled by parties at arm’s length to the law enforcement agencies involved, the investigators’ silence to date has been deafening. After more than seven months the Park Police officers involved have not been named, federal officials have refused to meet with local politicians and the DoJ has blocked the release of the 911 call related to this incident.

Protests and rallies. The cloak of silence surrounding the killing of Bijan Ghaisar has frayed the nerves of many in the Ft. Hunt community where Bhaisar was killed. Needless to say, his family is distraught. On May 19 family and friends of Ghaisar along with local politicians held a rally at the Department of Justice demanding answers. State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, (one of the few General Assembly members who consistently make sense) said, “It is absolutely crazy that it has now been six months of silence from the authorities … when you watch the video, Bijan is not speeding or driving aggressively. Nothing in that video said that anybody should be shot four times in the head. This is happening way too much in this country and in Northern Virginia. It is so important that we get transparency on this.” Amen, Scott.

Update. As of this date, no information has been released by the authorities. Yesterday, FBI agents brought Ghaisar’s Jeep back to the scene of the killing. They were seen conducting ballistics analyses and using a metal detector in the nearby woods. Asked if agents were searching for something thrown from the Jeep they refused to answer. Why it took over seven months to go through this exercise is anybody’s guess. And let’s hope to heaven that they don’t claim to find a gun in woods near the scene of the killing more than seven months after it happened.

My take. Watching the dash cam video makes it hard to understand why the Park Police felt the need to fire nine times into Ghaisar’s Jeep. However, I will carefully read the final report before I pass judgement. Yet beyond this specific incident, this type of thing is happening far too often in the United States. President Trump would be well advised to launch a national task force to analyze these police killings and find way to combat this plague of violence. Something is wrong and something needs to be done.

— Don Rippert

No Excuse for Immigrant Child Abuse

From the outside, the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton doesn’t look like a hellhole. What goes on inside?

Governor Ralph Northam has ordered state authorities to investigate allegations that guards at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center beat and otherwise abused children held at the immigration detention facility. The claims, if true, are shocking and must be addressed immediately.

Allegedly, teenagers were restrained, handcuffed, and made to sit with bags over their heads. Some were stripped of their clothes. Some were locked in solitary confinement, some beaten, left with bruises and broken bones and kept shivering in concrete cells. Frankly, I find the accusations, included in a federal civil rights lawsuit, hard to believe. But Northam is surely right to look into the charges. If they are accurate, such treatment cannot be tolerated, and someone needs to be held accountable.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. immigration authorities accused the children of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13. But a top manager at the Shenandoah center said in recent congressional testimony that they did not appear to be gang members, and that they were suffering from trauma suffered in their home countries — problems the facility is ill-equipped to deal with.

That observation suggests that if the charges are true, critical context may be missing from the lawsuit and sworn statements. Perhaps these teens are prone to outbursts of anger and violence. Perhaps the detainment center lacks appropriate facilities for handling such behavior. Perhaps staff was at wit’s end on how to maintain order. Whatever the case and whatever the mitigating circumstances, we need to find out what’s happening and fix it.

Permit me a philosophical observation: The United States is a sovereign state and a nation of laws. We decide through the political system who is allowed to enter the country and who cannot, and then we enforce the laws. We may or may not like the laws, but we don’t get to pick and choose which ones we enforce. (Got that, sanctuary cities?) The principle of enforcing the law applies both to immigrants who enter the country illegally and to the law enforcement authorities themselves. There is no excuse for beating and abusing detained immigrants.

I would feel much more comfortable with hard-line immigration-control policies if the people who espoused them didn’t also demonize the would-be immigrants. I don’t blame Central Americans for wanting to escape the horrors of their home countries or even to make a better living by entering the U.S. any way they can. If I were in their shoes, I might well do the same thing. Their predicament warrants sympathy and compassion. But that doesn’t give them the right to enter the country illegally. The world is full of miserable, abused and suffering people. We can’t take them all. If we catch people entering the country illegally, we treat them humanely… and then send them back. If we don’t like the laws on the books, we change them.

What Now for Separation of American Women from their Children?

Growth in U.S. female incarceration. Image credit: Prison Policy Initiative

Some 25 years ago I was living in Church Hill, then a sketchy Richmond neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification. One night police lights were flashing in my front window, so I stepped outside to see what was happening. Halfway down the block, a woman on the sidewalk was clutching an infant and bawling as police were confronting her. The police, it transpired, were arresting her on a charge relating to activities in her abode, a notorious crack house, and they had to haul her downtown. “Please don’t take my baby!” she wailed. “Please don’t take my baby!”

Curious, I inspected the premises. Other than a mattress on the floor, the house was bereft of furniture. The stink of dirty diapers permeated every room. I shuddered to think what kind of care the baby was receiving from a crack-addict mother. And I kept thinking, lady, if you don’t want to be separated from your baby, you should have thought about that before you started smoking cocaine. Even so, it was impossible not to feel compassion. The woman’s addiction had not smothered her maternal instinct. She was truly piteous.

I fully confess my ignorance of the inner workings of the U.S. criminal justice system, but it is my impression is that there was nothing unusual about the scene I witnessed, and that nothing significant has changed in the administration of justice since. If a woman is arrested for breaking the law, she is charged with a crime and taken to jail, where she may or may not get bail. She is held there until her trial. If found guilty, she goes to prison. As an inevitable part of the process, the mother is separated from her children, often for a considerable length of time. 

In 2015 the Virginia prison system incarcerated 3,236 female inmates. (A roughly equal number were held in local jails.) The most frequent offenses, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, were larceny/fraud (38%); drug sales (14%); robbery (8%); and drug possession (6%). The racial breakdown: 62% white and 37% black. The average age was almost 38. Sixty-two percent were separated from minor children.

The criminal justice system has been separating women from their children pretty much forever. The system has procedures for providing care for the children — handing them over to relatives, holding them in orphanages, placing them in foster homes. There may be other options I’m not familiar with. While that system has been subject to criticism from time to time — sometimes children fall between the institutional cracks — I don’t recall anyone objecting to the underlying necessity of removing children from women who are charged and convicted of crimes.

Even a recent study by the leftist Prison Policy Initiative, which absurdly manages to find injustice in the treatment of women in a prison population in which 90% of the inmates are men, mentioned the issue of children only in passing, and mainly in the context that female inmates should be allowed more face-to-face time with them.

Now, over the course of a two or three weeks, the nation has totally flipped on the issue — not out of concern for American citizens caught in the criminal justice system, but for families seeking to enter the country illegally. All of a sudden, it’s an affront to the country’s moral conscience that children are separated from mothers being held in detention while awaiting adjudication. My point is not to criticize or defend the behavior of either President Trump or his enemies in the media, but to explore the implications of this new way of thinking for the administration of criminal justice here in Virginia.

If it is a shocking violation of American values to remove children from parents entering the country illegally, is it a shocking violation of American values to do the same with American citizens breaking state laws? If justice requires ending the practice for Guatemalans and Salvadorans entering California, does logic now impel us to do the same for Americans here in Virginia? If so, are we morally obligated to overhaul Virginia’s criminal justice system so mothers are never again separated from their young children before they are convicted of a crime and sent to prison?

Taking President Trump out of the equation so we can think calmly and rationally, not viscerally, what criteria do we apply? What is the proper balance between having a humane criminal justice system and one that expeditiously carries out the laws of Virginia? Do we apply one set of rules to immigrants and a harsher set of rules to native-born Americans? Or do we overhaul criminal justice across the board, not just at the border? I don’t see how we avoid asking these questions now.

Being Dealt A Losing Hand That Lingers

There are times in life when four aces is a tough hand to hold.

Common themes on this public policy forum include poverty and its causes and cures, school failure and related discipline matters, health problems and the difficulty understanding why these conditions remain so widespread in this great nation and commonwealth.  I invite you to temporarily suspend your preconceived notions and examine some hard data that upset some of mine.

My quick summary is not doing this work justice but this is a blog, not the New Yorker.

More than twenty years ago two researchers on opposite sides of the country were feeling their way toward explaining strong correlations they observed between childhood experiences and later physical diseases.  One noted that people who dropped out of obesity treatment were often sex abuse victims.  A collaborative study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente.  About 17,000 people were asked to fill out a simple 10-question survey on various adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and then the results were correlated with their health records.

Here, take the test yourself.

The results were astounding.  Adults who had high ACE scores also were substantially more likely to have – decades later — a number of health problems up to and including early death. People with a score of six or more were potentially looking at lifespans of 20 fewer years.  From the summary I linked:  “Compared to an ACE score of zero, having four adverse childhood experiences was associated with a seven-fold (700%) increase in alcoholism, a doubling of risk of being diagnosed with cancer, and a four-fold increase in emphysema; an ACE score above six was associated with a 30-fold (3000%) increase in attempted suicide.”

It was widely known that children who were physically or sexually abused were more likely to become offenders themselves, and the concept of psychosomatic illness is ancient.  We’ve long talked about the cycle of poverty.  But here was hard proof in a simple and easy to replicate study.  It then led to brain studies that discovered that trauma and the resulting floods of cortisol and adrenaline actually change physical brain structures.  The how is becoming clearer.

This initial group was not a low-income population.  Heart disease, depression, family violence, drugs and learning problems are not limited to poor neighborhoods.  But the work has sparked a slowly spreading revolution in education and social services.

Consider the implications of simply changing the question “What is wrong with this child?” to “What has happened to this child?”  When you make that mental shift, does it change the way you think about the argument over long suspensions for primary school students with control issues?  Do you really think sitting out of school for a long period (unsupervised) is going to change anything?  Do you worry a little bit more about the impact on a child of a being evicted a series of times?  Are you a bit more interested in providing Medicaid to the whole family instead of just the children?

Source: CDC

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Murders, Arrests and the Politics of Racial Grievance

Baltimore. Orange patches represent “low arrest” areas, blue high-arrest areas.

The Washington Post had what could have been an interesting idea: Map more than 52,000 homicides and arrests in major American cities over the past decade. Sadly, the newspaper floundered with the data, unable to identify any meaningful trends other than the entirely predictable finding that some cities do a significantly better job of clearing its murders than others. Why that might be, other than some vague talk about the level of trust between police and inner-city populations, the Post had no clue.

Two cities were highlighted graphically in the WaPo’s analysis: Washington’s metropolitan neighbors Baltimore and Richmond. Baltimore stands out as a city dominated by “areas of impunity,” where murders go unsolved and murders are rarely caught. Richmond shines nationally as an example of a city where most murders are solved. Comparing policing practices and community attitudes in the two cities might have been instructive, but the WaPo took a different path.

There are no one-size-fits-all explanations for the variation in arrest rates across all cities, but I will nominate one factor that plays an outsized role: the politics of racial grievance.

Baltimore and Richmond are ideal test cases. Both have large populations of poor African-Americans living in highly segregated neighborhoods. Both have black-majority city councils. Both have black police chiefs and public prosecutors. Richmond has a black sheriff — I’m not sure what the equivalent position is in Baltimore, but whatever it is, I’ll wager that a black politician occupies the post. Thus, we can’t explain away the difference in arrest rates by the suggestion that, say, Richmond doesn’t have same kind of poor, inner city neighborhoods as Baltimore. Nor can we can’t blame the indifference of a white-dominated political class, as might be the case in other cities.

The difference, I submit, is political ideology. In Baltimore the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police escalated into a highly emotional and widely publicized controversy that fed into the Black Lives Matter narrative of endemic racial injustice. Egged on by the media, Baltimore’s politically progressive mayor and prosecutor appealed to the black population’s resentments and grievances and lambasted the performance of the police. The resulting polarization sowed mistrust between police and blacks. In such a toxic environment, the police enjoy little cooperation from the black population, making it exceedingly difficult to track down murderers and close cases. As a consequence, the murder rate soars.

Richmond’s African-American leaders are notable for their moderation and pragmatism. They don’t stoke racial grievances. While they clearly represent the interests of their poor constituents, their rhetoric supports the idea that “we’re all in this together.” They don’t see politics as a zero-sum game. They see prosperity as a rising tide that lifts all ships. As a consequence, the racial polarization that poisons police-community relations in Baltimore is far less of a problem in Richmond. The payoff is a much higher rate of arrests and convictions of murderers, and safer streets for law-abiding minority residents. Bottom line: By eschewing radical progressive rhetoric, Richmond’s black politicians get better results for their constituents.

Medicaid Fraud Unit Grows With Program

It would be interesting to know which is growing faster, the Medicaid program itself or the state-run legal and investigative team charged with rooting out and prosecuting the fraud, waste and abuse that appear on pools of dollars like algae on a still pond. My guess is the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU), now around 100 people, has actually grown faster than the underlying program it polices.

Does that mean a growing Medicaid program is generating more fraud? Or does it mean the problems are always there and a more numerous and aggressive enforcement staff can bring more cases? The second argument was the one always used on me when MFCU argued for more budget during my time as administrator in the Office of Attorney General.

In 1983 the team started with about a half dozen staff and recoveries that year were minuscule, but these are cases that take time to investigate and build. Over 35 years that total has reached almost $2 billion, although one big year (2012) accounted for almost half of that. The $14.4 million it will spend in each of the next two years is over 25 percent of the entire budget for the OAG.

None of the money comes from state taxpayers, but as is often noted we are all federal taxpayers as well. Its recoveries exceed its cost. Overall it has returned hundreds of millions of ill-gotten gains to various treasuries. Its deterrence effect is hard to measure but has to be included in any assessment.

In 2009 the unit started publishing its own annual reports, giving each Attorney General (a.k.a. Aspiring Governor) a chance to print his photo and bask in the glow of success MFCU usually throws off. By the time the first report was published, Bob McDonnell was already running for Governor so it wasn’t his photo. Still, I’m not surprised these reports started with an election year and haven’t stopped.

That first one from 2009 showed a staff of just under 50 people and a $6.6 million spend (way above where I left it in 2002), reporting 16 convictions and almost $27 million in restitution. That was substantially below the totals for 2007 and 2008, but there are no annual reports for those years to dig into why.  When you go to the 2017 report, you find the staff went up to just below 100 persons, the budget to just below $12 million, but recoveries were under $21 million that year.

From the 2017 Annual Report

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The Hidden Expense of Police Body Cameras

When police departments began equipping their officers with body cameras, I thought it was a great idea. Capturing a video record of police encounters could settle a lot of controversies. It never occurred to me that reviewing the video would be so exorbitantly time consuming that local prosecutors would have to hire additional employees — or that local governments would balk at the expense.

Earlier this year Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, proposed requiring any locality buying body cameras for patrol officers to hire one additional entry-level assistant commonwealth’s attorney for every 50 body cameras deployed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch informs us.

Other lawmakers nixed the idea but, in the grand tradition of the General Assembly, decided to study the matter. Now a special panel is investigating, in the words of the budget language, “how body worn cameras have or may continue to impact the workloads experienced by Commonwealth’s Attorneys offices.”

In Chesterfield County, body cameras have become quite the burden, reports the T-D. Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport has said that the hours of footage exceeds the capacity of his staff to watch it. The workload, he said, caused him to recently curtail the number of misdemeanors his office prosecutes. Meanwhile, the county’s new police chief is re-examining when officers turn on their cameras during an incident and which officers should carry them. Norment’s idea would have cost Chesterfield County between $800,000 to $900,000 for eight additional lawyers. 

Bacon’s bottom line: I find myself baffled. How can this be a problem? The overwhelming majority of police encounters are uncontroversial. Sure, police departments should save and catalog the video in case it’s needed later. But how many cases warrant an examination of the video feed? And how many hours does it take to review a single tape?

I’m also bewildered why Chesterfield would need to hire eight new lawyers at an average compensation of $100,000 a year. Why does it take someone with a law degree to review police video and isolate the five or ten minutes of footage relevant to the case? Can’t you hire a couple of college kids for $15 an hour to do the grunt work and hand off the relevant footage to the prosecutor in charge of the case?

Really, how difficult can it be to download police video for storage in the cloud, tag it with the officer’s name, date, and time of the encounter, have a intern in the C.A.’s office fetch the file in the relatively rare instances in which it might be germane, snip footage of the encounter, and pass along a clip to the prosecutor?

From my vantage point, the controversy makes so little sense that there must be more to it than meets the eye. But perhaps state and local government just isn’t very good at handling certain tasks. Perhaps there’s a business opportunity for an enterprise to do the job for them at half the cost.

The Veiled Racism in the School Shooting Debate

U.S. Homicide rate… down. Graphic credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

An axiom of Bacon’s Rebellion is that while progressives (progs) and social justice warriors (SJWs) oppose racism in their rhetoric, they support policies that have the unintended result of being racist in effect. Nowhere is this clearer than in their approach to the criminal justice system, in which they decry the criminals as victims while ignoring the victims of their criminality. Today I will take my argument one step further and suggest that progs and SJWs betray a pattern of behavior that, if observed among conservatives and libertarians, they would tar as racist.

This truth was brought to my mind by the lead editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, which published graphs contrasting the decline of the U.S. homicide rate over the past three decades (despite an uptick in the past two years) with the decline in mass shootings.

School massacres and other mass shooting.

The thrust of the T-D editorial was to observe that once upon a time, when access to guns was far easier than it is today, there were far fewer school mass shootings. Clearly, something is going on that has nothing to do with guns.

I would suggest that that “something” is a cultural/psychological phenomenon connected to white male alienation and mental illness, the spread of the Columbine-massacre template among disturbed teenage whites, mass media hysteria that guarantees maximum exposure of every shooting, and the rise of social media creating a platform for the killers to create manifestos explaining and justifying their rage. But that’s a side observation.

The larger point is this: National U.S. media inundate the public with coverage of mass shootings, even though they account for an almost trivial amount of total homicides. Why is that? Could the reason be that the overwhelming majority of all homicide victims are black, brown, or lower-income whites while the overwhelming majority of school shooting victims are white — just like the Mika Brzezinkis, Joe Scarboroughs, Rachel Maddows, Chris Cuomos and New York Times editorial writers? Could the reason be that the overwhelming majority of homicide victims live in neighborhoods where elite opinion makers never set foot, therefore elite opinion makers do not share the same sense of alarm as other Americans about criminal violence, while school shootings occur in places where the victims “look like them”?

Consider this graph from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Blacks are about 30% more likely to be victims of violent crimes than whites. Of course, a large percentage of violent crimes within any racial/ethnic category are committed by domestic partners or other acquaintances. Exclude those categories, and the rate of violent-crime victimization of upper-income, college-educated whites is very low. Upper middle-class progs and SJWs don’t worry much about assaults by domestic partners, gambling buddies, drug suppliers, or random street muggings. To them, the perceived threat of school shootings looms larger. As far as black victims of violent crime… meh. Inner city crime can be written off as an outcomes of institutional racism anyway — not their fault.

There is a fine balancing act here. The U.S. criminal justice system arguably does incarcerate too many people, and it arguably does need an overhaul. Virginia does an exemplary job of recycling jail and prison inmates back into the community — we have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country — but we could always do more. And we are. As an example: Yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam signed bipartisan legislation raising the threshold for a felony larceny from $200 to $500 — an action that hopefully will have the effect of reducing jail populations without increasing the incidence of petty crime.

But we need to be careful. According to the “broken windows” theory of criminality, a tolerance of misdemeanors leads to more minor crimes. A tolerance of minor crimes leads to more major crimes. The victims of those crimes come disproportionately from minority and lower-income neighborhoods. While these victims receive attention from local news media, they warrant almost zero from the national media that exert such a profound influence on the public policy agenda. If all crime victims were given the same platforms to express their fear and frustration as, say, the Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivors, the public policy debate in the United States would look very different indeed.

“Torture” and “Dehumanization” in Virginia’s Prisons?

The Virginia Department of Corrections has won kudos from the Obama administration Department of Justice and the Southern Legislative Conference for limiting the use of long-term “restrictive housing,” the administrative euphemism for solitary confinement. In 2011 the maximum security Red Onion prison in Southwest Virginia held 511 prisoners in long-term restrictive housing. Today, the number is fewer than 100.

But that’s not good enough for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union which, in a letter to Governor Ralph Northam, asked the state to curtail the practice even more. Reports Frank Green with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

 “Isolating someone not just from their family and community but placing them in a cell the size of a parking space for 22-24 hours a day and depriving them of human contact, natural light, exercise and other out-of-cell time, and other stimuli, causes extreme suffering and mental illness,” wrote [Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia].

“No one, regardless of their crime, should be tortured and dehumanized in this way,” she added.

Let’s parse this. Roughly 100 of the most dangerous of the 30,000 prisoners in Virginia’s penitentiary system — one in 300 — are held in solitary confinement at any given time. Almost all of them, I’ll wager, have been convicted of violent crimes. Almost all of them, I’ll bet, have what we might call anger management issues. In all likelihood, every single one has gotten into altercations inside prison. These guys are either (a) considered a danger to other inmates, or (b) live in fear of other inmates. Still, they are let out of the cells up to two hours a day for exercise, recreation and showers. This is dehumanizing? This is torture?

I’m sorry, but this is the kind of rhetoric that gives liberals a bad name.

The ACLU study quotes the inmates themselves as evidence that disciplinary charges are sometimes inflated or false, and that solitary confinement is not limited to situations in which it is essential for reasons of safety. Right. Like violent criminals never lie.

OK, OK, sometimes they may be telling the truth. Perhaps I’ve watched too many prison movies, but I’ll grant that prison guards may not always be the finest specimens of humanity themselves and may sometimes abuse their power. The appropriate response is to correct injustices when they occur rather than impose blanket policies, as the ACLU advocates, such as using solitary only in “rare and exceptional cases,” limiting the length to 15 days, and banning the practice entirely for prisoners with mental illness.

In a free and open society, it’s a good thing to know that someone like the ACLU is looking out for the rights of prison inmates. Abuses sometimes do occur, and they sometimes do get covered up. That’s the nature of things. Prisoners need an outside channel like the ACLU to report wrong-doing. But this time, it sounds to me that, the ACLU has gone way overboard.

As a frivolous aside, I’ve occasionally thought what it would be like to be imprisoned in a maximum security facility with scary inmates and I”ve wondered how I would survive. My first thought: Do whatever it takes to be put into solitary. I’d far rather live in confinement than become some big hairy dude’s prison bitch.

Give me a stack of books and an hour a day in the exercise yard, and I’d do just fine.

Time to Reform Practice of Cash Bonds

Earlier this month Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring announced that his office would no longer recommend requiring cash bond for people charged with crimes. Instead, prosecutors would recommend defendants either be held in jail or be given their freedom until the trial. Too many people are unable to raise cash for the bond, and Herring is concerned that the practice needlessly stuffs the city jail with poor defendants who may be innocent and pose no threat to the community.

Herring is not a social justice warrior. He’s a prosecutor who takes seriously his obligation to put bad guys in jail. But he’s also sensitive to the effect that the criminal justice system has on poor African-Americans. Holding someone in gaol until his (or her, but mostly his) trial interrupts his employment, disrupts his ability to meet his financial obligations, and deprives him of his freedom. The practice also imposes a burden on taxpayers to house, feed, and guard people who have yet to be convicted of a crime.

If the Richmond metro area were undergoing a horrendous crime wave, I might be inclined to err on the side of public safety. But crime continues to decline. As we approach end of April, Police Chief Alfred Durham reports heartening statistics, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Seven fewer homicides, 23 fewer people shot, 42 fewer robberies, 196 fewer burglaries, and an overall 6 percent drop in violent and property crimes compared to the same point last year. This would seem to be a propitious time to implement reforms to the criminal justice system, if it can be shown that reforms are needed.

When thinking about the causes of poverty, I find it useful to adopt two analytical frameworks: individual and institutional. Examining poverty at the level of the individual, we can see that some people are poor as a consequence of poor decisions they have made: They dropped out of school, they got pregnant before they got married, they abused alcohol or drugs, they committed crimes, they were unreliable employees, or they spent more money than they made and put themselves onto a treadmill of debt. And we can also see that institutional forces often work against them. Their schools were terrible. Politicians were corrupt. Jobs were scarce. They ran afoul of a criminal justice system that stacked the odds against them.

If we want to address poverty in Virginia and create a society where people can rise above their circumstances, then we need to adopt both frames of reference, Among other things, that means giving a closer look at the criminal justice system. I have written in the past about how jails and prisons can ease the re-entry of inmates into society by making sure they have such basic job-finding tools as drivers licenses and identity cards. And a strong case can be made that they system of cash bond disproportionately burdens the poor.

Herring’s order to stop recommending cash bond is just the first step, argues Adeola Ogunkeyede, director of the Civil Rights & Racial Injustice Program. While prosecutors may stop recommending cash bond, they aren’t always present when bail decisions are made — magistrates often make bail decisions when prosecutors aren’t around. Likewise, judges can override prosecutors’ recommendations.

In a Richmond Times-Dispatch column today, she writes: “Given this context it remains to be seen whether Herring’s decision to stop his prosecutors from recommending cash bond will reduce the number of people locked in jail pretrial in Richmond.” She concludes:

Moving forward, we encourage Herring to join advocates and communities disproportionately impacted by unjust bail practices — predominantly low-income communities of color — in championing measures that would unequivocally put Richmond on track to lead the way on meaningful bail reform in Virginia.

From what I gather, Herring has already joined the movement. Her remarks would be better aimed at magistrates and judges. More critically, I would like to see Ogunkeyede acknowledge that there is a balancing act between protecting the rights of the accused and protecting the community from the depredations of crime. As social justice warriors often seem to forget, “communities of color” are disproportionately victims of the criminals who live in their midst.

Still, all things considered, it is a fundamental principle of American justice that people are presumed innocent until found guilty. We should explore ways to keep not-convicted people out of jail, especially those accused of non-violent crimes who pose no threat to the public. Herring’s announcement is an important step forward and Ogunkeyede’s column is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.