Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

A Partial Defense of RRHA Eviction Policies

Creighton Court, a public housing project run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Photo credit: Richmond Magazine.

I never thought I’d find myself defending the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA), which I criticized last year for running up a $150 million maintenance backlog on its 4,000 public housing units. But the wheel of public policy debate turns in unexpected ways. Now, RRHA is being dinged for its high eviction rates.

Here’s the background courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Evictions in Virginia drew national attention earlier this year after a New York Times report on a nationwide study done by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab showing Richmond as having the second-highest eviction rate in the country, with Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake also in the top 10.

How the agency chooses to pursue those who do not pay rent on time was the subject of a Richmond Times-Dispatch analysis, which determined no landlord in Virginia threatened to kick out more of their tenants last year than RRHA.

Needless to say, many if not most residents of Richmond’s public housing projects are living on the edge. They’re the poorest of the poor, subsisting on minimum wage jobs if they work at all. Sure, some may qualify for food stamps, earned income tax credits, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, energy assistance, free cell phones, housing subsidies, legal aid, and other government-welfare benefits, not to mention soup kitchens, toys for tots, private-school scholarships, and a panoply of charitable programs, but their lives tend to be chaotic and they live paycheck to paycheck. All it takes is one financial setback, and they can’t find money for rent.

As the housing provider of last resort, RRHA arguably has the least credit-worthy customer base of any landlord in Virginia. I’m not the least bit surprised that it has the highest eviction rate.

Let’s ask ourselves, what would happen if RRHA adopted practices, either voluntarily or under compulsion of state law, to curtail evictions by means advocated by tenant-rights groups? What if RRHA extended the length of time for tenants to come up with the cash?

First, would late payments and eviction rates noticeably decline, or would tenants just adjust expectations push up against the new limits like they pushed up against the old?

Second, would RRHA suffer a diminution of cash flow?

And, third, if it did, what would be the consequences? Would RRHA have less money to pay for desperately-needed repairs? Put another way, to what extent would showing clemency to those who fail to pay their rent on time impact negatively those who do?

My problem with social justice warriors is not that they have compassion for poor people (some of whom deserve compassion and some of whom don’t), but that they propose remedies without taking into account the unintended consequences. No one knows the answers to the questions raised here. Some unintended consequences are entirely foreseeable, but no one seems to care.

Tenant-Rights Activists, Meet the Housing Shortage

Source: Joint Center for Housing Studies

The debate over tenant evictions is gaining traction now that the Virginia Housing Commission has taken up the issue. Two concrete proposals were put before the Commission during a Tuesday hearing. One would extend the time from five days to two weeks before rent is declared to be late. A second would give tenants more time to pay late rent before they are evicted.

Advocates for tenants rights and landlords differed over the wisdom of these proposals, and discussion bogged down when it became evident that there was insufficient data to determine what impact the proposals would have, reports the Daily Press.

Apparently, a critical question was never asked — why are rents rising and making housing so unaffordable for the poor and near poor?

Hopefully, members of the Virginia Housing Commission will pay heed to a new report issued by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, which illuminates how supply and demand are driving up housing prices and making rent increasingly unaffordable for lower-income Americans across the country. While the housing crisis is most acute on the West Coast and in the Northeast, the problem is getting worse almost everywhere, including Virginia.

As can be seen (if you squint) in the map above, the ratio of housing prices to incomes in the Hampton Roads, Richmond, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Blacksburg and Bristol metropolitan areas is between 3.0 and 3.9 — less oppressive than in many other metros. But in the Washington (Northern Virginia), Winchester, Charlottesville, and Staunton MSAs, the ratio is between 4.0 and 4.9 — on the high side.

Digging deeper, the Harvard study shows that the percentage of renting households experience a significant “cost burden.” Virginia metros aren’t the worst in the country by this measure, but they’re far from the best, as can be eyeballed below.


The root cause of unaffordability is that home building is not keeping up with population growth. Given widespread zoning barriers to new construction, developers focus their efforts on projects with the highest profit margins — housing that can be sold for higher prices to higher-income households. But the problem runs even deeper. Most localities have zoned entire categories of affordable housing out of existence. Single Room Occupancy buildings are outlawed almost everywhere. Boarding houses are illegal. Granny flats and garage apartments are discouraged in many localities. It is exceedingly difficult to get permission to build new trailer parks. Middle-class voters don’t want poor people living near them, and they wield the power of the state to protect their property values.

Tenant-rights activists are targeting the wrong problem. If they make it more difficult for landlords to collect their rent, landlords will convert their rental properties to more profitable uses — thus aggravating the housing shortage for the poor. Activists moved by the plight of the poor need to stop attacking symptoms and address the root problem: zoning restrictions that cause the housing shortage. Otherwise, they’re really helping no one.

Proceed Cautiously with Eviction Reforms

Carlos Lopez, a Los Angeles landscaper, inherited a house and let it out to rent. When the original tenant went to jail, a woman Lopez had never seen before was occupying the premises and refusing to pay any rent. He engaged an attorney to evict her. The squatter lawyered up, too, obtaining free legal services from a state-funded nonprofit whose mission is to reduce evictions. Lopez soon discovered that he couldn’t afford to push the lawsuit, which would cost anywhere between $8,000 and $20,000 to win.

“He was dealing from a nearly powerless position,” writes his attorney, Rikka Fountain, in the Wall Street Journal. “Tenants with attorneys always demand discovery, depositions and a jury. This drives landlords’ legal costs up from the typical flat fee of several hundred dollars to tens of thousands.”

Renting wasn’t worth the headaches, Lopez concluded. He hopes to sell the house.

California defendants represented by attorneys routinely seek several months of free residence, a waiver of unpaid rent, a sealed judgment, and a reference letter from the landlord so future landlords won’t know the tenant’s history. (The defendant in the Lopez case had been evicted from three other houses previously.) As if that weren’t enough, San Franciscans will vote next week on a proposition that will give all eviction defendants the right to a city-funded attorney regardless of income or reason for eviction.

As the social justice movement mobilizes to combat a purported eviction “crisis” here in Virginia, it’s worth bearing in mind what can happen when tenant rights take excessive precedence over landlord rights. Citing a recent study that showed that five Virginia cities ranking among the Top 10 nationally for eviction rates, the Virginia Poverty Law Center has launched a Campaign to Reduce Evictions (CARE). It is not yet clear what kind of remedies CARE will seek but, as a leader in tenant rights, California could serve as a role model.

As it happens, California couples the nation’s strongest anti-eviction protections with the nation’s highest rates of homelessness. Social justice warriors cite the ever-growing ranks of homeless people as justification for laws protecting the poor from being tossed from their homes. At the same time, punishing landlords reduces the supply of rental housing. There will be no lack of would-be homeowners in Los Angeles willing to purchase Carlos Lopez’s house — like most California cities, Los Angeles suffers from a dearth of new housing construction. When the squatter is eventually bought off and evicted, the house most likely will be taken off the rental market. As Lopez’s experience is replicated thousands of times, landlord-hostile laws reduce the supply of rental housing and push homelessness even higher.

Anti-eviction laws are one more example of the unintended consequences of the social justice movement. SJWs seize upon genuine misfortunes — let’s face it, many people live paycheck to paycheck, and a single financial setback can make them miss their rent payment — to justify laws and practices that apply to everyone. Trouble is, just as there are bad landlords, there are bad tenants who game the system.

Virginia law strikes a balance between tenant rights and landlord rights. RentCafe rated the 50 states for renter-friendly versus landlord-friendly policies based on “10 common aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship, which include security deposits, rent increases, the warranty of habitability and eviction notices.” Far from ranking as one of the most landlord friendly states in the U.S., as one might expect from its pro-business climate, Virginia is in the middle. On a 1 to 100 scale, with 1 being landlord friendly and 100 being tenant friendly, Virginia is rated 45.

By all means, let’s review the laws on the books to make sure they still make sense. But let’s avoid the temptation to drive policy by cherry picking a few of heart-rending episodes of families tossed onto the sidewalk. Stacking the deck against landlords can lead to fewer rental units on the market and even higher rental prices, which boomerangs on conscientious tenants who do manage to pay their rent on time. If Virginia SJWs want to help the truly unfortunate as opposed to the free riders, they would be well advised to urge solutions geared to households’ specific circumstances, not one-size-fits-all remedies as in California. Better yet, SJWs should try their hand at renting out apartments themselves to see what landlords deal with. It might prove to be an enlightening experience.

Millions More for Medicaid Expansion? Now You Tell Us

One of the conceits of Virginia’s Medicaid debate is that expansion would pay for itself. Uncle Sam would pick up 90% of the cost, leaving Virginia to raise money for only 10%. The Commonwealth would save a few hundred million dollars through reduced funding for prison healthcare, mental health, indigent care funding, FAMIS pregnant women, and other programs. And hospitals would kick in more than $300 million from a provider assessment.

Now we read from Michael Martz with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the only reporter providing meaningful follow-up to the biggest entitlement expansion in recent Virginia history, that “the work is far from done in expanding access to health care for 400,000 uninsured Virginians.”

It turns out, he writes, that lawmakers and state officials “didn’t include money in the two-year budget to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates for doctors and other front-line health care providers.”

Oops. And how much  money might that be? Supposedly, about $47 million in the second year of the biennial budget to raise reimbursements for doctors to about 67 cents on the dollar to 88 cents.

I’ve been making this point throughout the debate — expanding Medicaid coverage is meaningless if the federally and state-funded health insurance program for the poor pays so little that many doctors won’t take money-losing Medicaid patients. At least, it appears, our legislators did understand the problem even if they didn’t openly acknowledge it. (If they did openly acknowledge it, no one in the media picked up on it.) But now that Medicaid expansion is a done deal, lawmakers and lobbyists are suddenly talking about previously undisclosed liabilities to taxpayers.

“Just because you get insurance doesn’t mean you have access to a doctor,” said Ralston King, vice president of government relations for the Medical Society of Virginia, stating an issue that should have been obvious to everyone but somehow flew under the media radar through months of debate. Finding a way to pay for it is the next challenge, King said. “Right now, we don’t have a funding mechanism.”

Then there’s this from Dr. Todd Parker, an emergency room physician at Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital on the Eastern Shore: “We are encouraged that along with this legislation, given the very low reimbursements that Medicaid provides providers, that legislators are considering ways to increase Medicaid reimbursements and otherwise help physicians who may see increased numbers of Medicaid patients.”

Bacon’s bottom line: So, Medicaid expansion isn’t complete, and ordinary Virginians aren’t finished paying for it. We’ll pay indirectly by means of a $300  million provider tax, some proportion of which will be passed on to patients, and we’ll pay again when legislators figure out where to find another $47 million a year to make Medicaid expansion meaningful by raising reimbursements to a level where physicians don’t treat patients at a loss.

Who even knows if that $47 million number is real? How long it will take to morph into something much bigger? Do the math: About 1.3 million Virginians currently receive Medicaid. Expansion will add another 400,000. Forty-seven million dollars spread over 1.7 million patients equals less than $27 per patient. Do you think $27 a year will raise physician reimbursements from 66% to 88% of the cost of treatment? I don’t.

If you feel hoodwinked by Medicaid expansion — politicians consistently low balling the cost and the fourth estate failing to probe what it would cost the public — you’re not alone. So do I.

OK, We Enacted Medicaid Expansion. Let’s Measure How Well It Works.

A “die-in” held at Capitol Square: Long on symbolism, short on data. Photo credit: Washington Post

So… The General Assembly has enacted Medicaid reform. That’s a big win for Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia Democrats, and potentially good news for 400,000 of near-poor Virginia adults who now will qualify for a healthcare program that will be 90% funded by the federal government and 10% by the state. It’s not such good news for budget hawks concerned about Medicaid’s runaway impact on Virginia’s General Fund budget or for patients who could pick up the tab for a new $300 million-a-year assessment on hospitals.

The reporting on Medicaid expansion, the biggest entitlement expansion in recent Virginia history, has been truly dreadful — a fact that I attribute to the downsizing of newsrooms across Virginia and the resulting inability of Virginia media to field the manpower to do anything more than cover General Assembly hearings. It is astonishing how little we really know about the impact this legislation will have on the cost and delivery of health care in Virginia.

My big questions now: (1) Will the program improve the health of Virginia’s near poor; (2) will it do so within the budget constraints that have been promised; and (3) how much of the cost, if any, will get passed on to the privately insured?

In all likelihood we will never know. That’s because no one appears to have identified benchmarks by which the effectiveness of the legislation can be measured. The politicians, activists and pundits will declare victory and move on to the next cause of the day. The last thing they want is to lay down markers by which this entitlement expansion can be judged to be effective or not. We don’t have the capacity here at Bacon’s Rebellion to do that heavy lifting, but we  can ask questions that are worth bearing in mind as the Medicaid juggernaut rolls forward.

Budget savings. A key promise in getting Medicaid expansion enacted is that the program will pay for the state contribution through savings in state programs. In theory, the Commonwealth will save $370 million in prison healthcare, mental health, indigent care funding, FAMIS pregnant women, and the like, over the next two-year budget. Will those savings materialize? I’m fairly confident that they will — budget items like this are among the easiest things to predict. But we won’t know for sure if we don’t check.

Impact on the Affordable Care Act. Steve Haner noted in a previous post that an estimated 60,000 Virginians now covered by Affordable Care Act health plans will be enrolled in Medicaid. What does it say about Medicaid expansion if, to a significant degree, it is just shifting tens of thousands of patients from one government-subsidized program to a different government subsidized program? Another question: Does Medicaid provide better coverage than Obamacare or worse? Yet another: What actuarial impact will the loss of 60,000 patients have on the Obamacare plans?

Speaking of Obamacare… The Affordable Care Act insurance markets continue their meltdown in Virginia. According to HealthInsurance.org, the weighted average of next-year rate increases filed by all insurers in Virginia is 13.4%. Some fraction of that increase can be attributed to Trump administration actions, but the markets also have been in a death spiral in which healthy patients bail out, forcing insurers to hike rates to cover the remaining, sicker patients. Regardless of who or what is to blame, it is difficult to appraise what is happening in the Obamacare markets. Plans vary so widely by the amount of deductibles and discounts negotiated from listed prices that it is impossible to compare Plan A with Plan B. The situation could be worse than it appears from comparing premiums alone. What will happen to the near-near poor (as opposed to the near-poor enrolled in Medicaid) if they get priced out of the market? Will Medicaid have to expand to cover them, too?

Quality of Medicaid care. Medicaid reimburses hospitals and doctors at the lowest rate of anybody in town, and most providers lose money on their Medicaid patients. Combine that with an acute shortage of doctors, and you get a situation in which it is exceedingly difficult for Medicaid patients to find primary case physicians. The General Assembly has done nothing to alleviate the doc shortage. Perhaps the managed care plans set up for Medicaid patients will devise work-arounds for the problem. Perhaps not. Nationally, there has been considerable debate about whether Medicaid patients are better off with Medicaid than if they just threw themselves upon the mercy of hospitals and doctors. Inevitably, that debate will be reprised here in Virginia. The Northam administration should settle upon metrics that track outcomes for Virginia’s near-poor population before and after Medicaid expansion.

Cost shifting. The financing of the health care system is stacked against the middle class. Hospitals shift a portion of the cost of treating their money-losing patients (indigent, uninsured, and Medicaid) to patients with privately insured health plans. Privately insured patients could get a triple whammy next year. Not only will they pay higher premiums due to general health care inflation (the first whammy), but they’ll eat the estimated $300 million hospital assessment enacted as part of Medicaid expansion (the second whammy). Plus, they could take another hit as docs and hospitals treat more money-losing Medicaid patients and shift costs to the privately insured (the third whammy). On the other hand, Medicaid expansion will inject a couple billion dollars into the system, so maybe cost-shifting pressures will diminish. Frankly, nobody knows. But it would inform future debate if someone tracked the numbers and performed the analysis.

Hospital profitability. With the exception of some rural hospitals, putatively nonprofit hospitals have consistently maintained high levels of profitability through the twists and turns of health care markets over the years. Will Medicaid expansion pad or diminish their profitability? I’m predicting that overall industry profits in Virginia will surge, but I could be wrong. Again, it would be helpful if someone kept track so we can understand what’s happening.

I offer this list just to get the conversation started. I’m sure readers can refine the thinking. What’s important is that we start measuring now. I would hate to find ourselves revisiting Medicaid expansion two or three years knowing no more than we do now.

Virginia Eviction Laws Stacked Against the Poor

by Marc Lockhart

Last Tuesday I joined more than 100 people for the inaugural meeting of the Campaign to Reduce Evictions (CARE), sponsored by the Virginia Poverty Law Center, at First Baptist Church in Richmond. We assembled for two hours to investigate why Richmond has the second highest eviction rate in the country among large cities and what can be done about it. The goal of the campaign is to produce recommendations by 2019 that state and local policy makers can use to craft solutions to the crisis.

Why are we talking about this — how bad is it?

Richmond ranks #2 in the nation with an eviction rate of 11.44% with 6,345 evictions in 2016, according to data from the Eviction Lab. Roughly one out of every nine renters was evicted, or 17.38 households evicted every day. Comparing it to the rest of the country, Richmond is approximately five times the national average of 2.34%.

Moreover, Virginia has half the large cities with the country’s Top 10 highest eviction rates. Part of the reason is that Virginia, unlike many other states, has a legal process that favors landlords. (See eviction data for details.)

As Omari al-Qadaffi, a housing advocate from Leaders of the New South, points out, “An unlawful detainer is the only civil action in Virginia where an indigent person is compelled to pay the appeal bond. Any other civil action, you can be excused from it if you’re poor, but Virginia is such a real estate-friendly state that you cannot be excused from that. Also, something unique about Virginia is that a general district court is not a court of record, so there is no transcript that’s kept. So …in civil court, defendants just get run over top of in general district court, and cannot go back to a record to say ‘hey, my rights were deprived of me.’”

How is CARE approaching this?

CARE is conducting a series of meetings and workshops to create recommendations. The inaugural meeting was well organized and drew a cross-section of people and stakeholders involved in or affected by evictions. The breadth of stakeholder groups assembled was impressive — tenants who are in the process of being evicted and those who have been previously evicted, landlords, property managers, housing advocates and aid societies, housing authorities like Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority interim CEO Orlando Artze, attorneys, court personnel, and academicians.

The meeting started with a moving, personal story by Tonya Kernodle who recounted her experience being evicted as “emotionally devastating.” She admonished the audience to widen its perspective about who is evicted. “Don’t think it’s some type of person; it can be anyone.”

Martin Wegbreit, Director of Litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, described the typical five-step eviction process, but noted that the duration can vary based on the court’s schedule and local practices. Nationally, 77% of evictions occur because of non-payment of rent and 23% for other reasons, like causing a public nuisance, poor building conditions, or calling the police too many times. Typically the process goes as follows:

Attorney Wegbreit noted how quick the eviction process is in Virginia and it favors the property owner, “the landlord [has many options] and has been made whole.  The landlord has gotten all of the rent, all of the late fees, all of the court fees, and all of the attorneys fees and is out nothing, and yet the tenant can be out everything, if the landlord so chooses.” Continue reading

A New Narrative for African-Americans

Kanye West

Hip-hop artist Kanye West has sent the Twitterverse into a frenzy by tweeting his approbation of psychologist Jordan Peterson, economist Thomas Sowell, and viral sensation Candace Owens. The thrust of West’s comments is that African-Americans should be allowed to think for themselves. Intellectuals like Sowell and Walter Williams, read only by conservative intellectuals, fought the good fight for many long years but had negligible impact on African-American thinking. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been marginalized in black opinion by portrayals of him as a stooge of smarter white, conservative judges. But the Democratic/liberal lock on African-American thought is rusting. A cultural icon like West legitimizes the view that there are alternatives to the black-victimization narrative.

Candace Owens

I bring to the attention of Bacon’s Rebellion readers an unsung group called Project 21, a national network of African-Americans dedicated to exploring conservative and libertarian public policy solutions for advancing blacks in American society. The group has just published a report, “Blueprint for a Better Deal for Black America.”

While others like West and Owens are garnering media attention, Project 21 has been doing the yeoman’s work of articulating a public policy agenda.

“It has been over a half-century since the enactment of landmark civil rights legislation targeting the scourge of racial discrimination,” states the introduction. “Unfortunately, too many black families today suffer from a non-racial scourge – conditions that undermine upward mobility and perpetuate unacceptable levels of poverty, crime and other social ills. The vaunted social safety net has become a web that ensnares black families in a vicious cycle of dependency.

The report offers the following key recommendations, which I repeat verbatim:

Reducing Black Unemployment. Abolish the Jim Crow-era Davis-Bacon Act; initiate a second wave of welfare reform with work requirements and waive the minimum wage and collection of FICA for younger workers in special low-income areas.

Promoting self-determination. End fraudulent election practices that dilute black votes. Require proof of citizenship to register; vigorously prosecute those who target minority communities for fraud and prohibit the mailing out of ballots that haven’t been requested.

Ending excessive regulation. Require “Minority Impact Assessments” for new regulations.

Reducing the economic harm of excise taxes. Repeal federal, state and local sin and gas taxes, all of which have disproportionate negative impact on low-income families.

Promoting K-12 educational choice. Establish federal needs-based vouchers funded in part through an IRS 1040 voluntary donation check-off. Improve school security through upgrades in entry doors and by allowing trained school personnel access to guns.

Strengthening faith-based communities. Establish federal Tax Credit Scholarships; repeal the Johnson Amendment; create a tax credit for families paying for nursery-12 fees and tuition; and ban abortions performed exclusively on the basis of fetus ethnicity.

Improving the relationship between police and black communities. Get police out of the regulation business: disarm federal agencies and transfer the resources to support police-community outreach programs; increase the use of body cameras; provide training to police in identifying people with autism; end gun bans and put police in charge of safety training.

Stopping wealth transfer from the poor to non-citizens. Bar illegal aliens from using public services, except in emergencies.

I don’t agree with all of these ideas, but that’s not the point. I’m not looking to create a new conservative orthodoxy that blacks must adhere to. I welcome fresh thinking from the African-American community on how to free blacks from government dependency and partake of the economic opportunities that other Americans enjoy. By all means, let’s have that conversation.

As Project 21’s perspectives spread, as I am confident they will, I hope we can extend the conversation to Virginia state and local issues. I invite Virginia African-American readers to contribute to the dialogue on Bacon’s Rebellion. Please feel free to contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

Are Virginia’s Civil Courts Stacked Against the Poor?

Only one in 500,000 civil cases handled in Virginia’s general district courts each year have lawyers representing both plaintiffs and defendants, according to a new study by the National Center for State Courts.

And what does that mean?

“When only one side has an attorney and the other side doesn’t, then the system becomes dysfunctional, it’s a tilted playing field. Despite the judges’ best efforts to be fair, they cannot possibly make up for the lack of counsel,” says John E. Whitfield, executive director of Blue Ridge Legal Services in Harrisonburg, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The five-year-long study was funded with financial support of the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Virginia Access to Justice Commission, and funneled through Blue Ridge Legal Services.

General district court data show that plaintiffs with lawyers won 60 percent of the cases where the defendant did not have a lawyer. But plaintiffs won only 20 percent of the cases when both parties were represented. Writes the T-D:

The study found that both plaintiffs and defendants have substantially higher success rates when they are represented by a lawyer.

“Clearly, representational status of the parties has an impact on the outcomes of cases in Virginia – not surprising, that’s why people hire lawyers,” Whitfield said.

“Our court system was designed with the implicit premise that the litigants were going to have lawyers on both sides. That’s the way the court system is set up: the rules of evidence, the rules of procedure, how you make objections, how get evidence in, how you draft pleadings – every aspect of litigation in our court system presumes the presence of counsel on both sides,” he said.

Debt cases in general district courts often end in default judgements when the defendant simply fails to show up, said Whitfield. “They understand they owe the money, they don’t know of any valid defense and it would seem like a waste of their time to go down there and say, ‘Yeah, I owe the money,'” he said.

But, said Whitfield, “Sometimes they may have a defense but they don’t know it because they don’t have access to an attorney who would explore that for them.”

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s one thing to have inequalities in wealth and status in U.S. society — that’s what you expect in a country where freedom is valued more highly than equality. But almost everyone would agree that all Americans should enjoy equal rights under the law. Poverty should not deny a person justice. This study makes it sound like that’s exactly what’s going on.

The analysis leaves out one critical consideration, however: Any person, no matter how poor, can endeavor to engage a lawyer. There is no shortage of lawyers who pursue general practice law. The problem for defendants is that lawyers won’t take many cases that have no merit. The reason defendants win a much higher percentage of cases when they have lawyers is that the lawyers filter out the weak cases and take only the stronger ones.

The T-D article points out that most civil cases fall into one of two categories: bad debts and evictions. Businesses and landlords usually have some basis for filing civil suits to collect the money — rarely do they make up claims out of whole cloth. And the reason most defendants don’t show up at court is that they know they failed to pay. Occasionally, the plaintiff may get his facts wrong, or there may be other extenuating circumstances. For instances like those, there are public defenders.

As a libertarian, I believe that the impartial administration of justice is a core government responsibility. As a conservative, I believe that no institution is so perfect that it can’t be made to work better. I interpret this study not as a wholesale indictment of Virginia’s civil courts but as a signal that the issues it raises may warrant closer scrutiny.

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.

Can Medicaid Expansion Address the Doctor Shortage?

Teresa Gardner Tyson, executive director of Health Wagon. Photo credit: Virginia Business

With Virginia on the cusp of Medicaid expansion, it is heartening to see someone asking the obvious question: What good is Medicaid coverage if you can’t find a doctor? Bob Burke at Virginia Business states the obvious:

Getting a Medicaid card doesn’t necessarily mean you have a doctor at hand. Plenty of places in Virginia — especially rural areas — already are short of health-care providers. Oftentimes, people there depend on nonprofit community health centers or free clinics (both of which are chronically underfunded) scattered around the state, or they just go without. This is the true access challenge.

Virginia has a network of clinics, health wagons and other services that provides basic care to poor Virginians, but the system operates on a shoestring, and thousands of people fall between the cracks. An important question is what happens to the existing medical infrastructure for the poor, as inadequate as it is, when Medicaid comes along?

Teresa Gardner Tyson runs The Health Wagon, a mobile clinic that delivers care to people in Southwest Virginia. Medicaid expansion would be favorable to the people she treats, she says, but it’s not a panacea. Some of Health Wagon’s patients are already Medicaid patients — and they can’t find any other health provider.

About five years ago, Health Wagon hired a consultant to run the numbers on how best to take advantage of Medicaid dollars if they started flowing. “We’d have to go back and look at those numbers again” and see whether becoming a Medicaid provider makes sense, Tyson says. “We’re sustained by donations and grants, and at the end of the day, though, we do give free care, [but] the care that we give is not free.”

Here is my question: What happens to those donations and grants if Medicaid expansion is enacted? Will Health Wagon still have a purpose? Perhaps it will, if nothing is done to address the shortage of health care practitioners in Southwest Virginia and there’s nowhere else to go. But if that shortage isn’t addressed and patients still can’t find doctors, is anyone better off?

The Virginia Community Healthcare Association (VCHA), which has 29 member organizations at 147 sites, serves about 100,000 uninsured people every year. CEO Neal Graham estimates that of that number, about 70,000 would be eligible for Medicaid after expansion. He also estimates that expansion will bring an additional 100,000 patients into the clinics and community centers. But it’s not clear at all from Burke’s article that the clinics will have the resources to staff up to meet the extra demand.

There are two problems in rural Virginia: a lack of health coverage and a shortage of health care practitioners. Medicaid expansion fixes the first problem. But as long as the program pays less than Medicare and private insurance — typically forcing medical providers to operate at a loss — Medicaid expansion will do nothing to recruit new practitioners to under-served areas. If lawmakers want the expansion to work, they must address the shortage of doctors, nurses, and technicians. Otherwise, they’re just perpetrating a cruel hoax on Virginia’s poor.