Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Virginia’s Competitive Advantage in Green Power

Solar power is looking better and better by comparison to wind power, and that’s a good thing for Virginia.

In Germany, a global pioneer of wind power, hundreds of wind turbines are experiencing metal fatigue and other issues as they pass their 20- to 25-year design lives — and they are literally falling apart. Turbines are falling to the ground. Blades are snapping off and flying hundreds of feet. Razor-sharp glass fiber splinters have been documented to have flown 800 meters away. So far, no one has been hurt, but one expert speaks of a “ticking time bomb.” (Die Welt has the story here.)

Problems with an energy-production source often don’t become evident for decades. That certainly was the case with coal and oil. Now, a couple of decades after the widespread deployment of wind turbines, we’re learning about a downside of wind. Compared to Deepwater Horizon-scale oil spills and mountaintop-removal coal mining, flying turbine debris may be small potatoes. But as we think about our energy future, the comparison isn’t between wind and coal or oil — no one is building new coal or oil plants — it’s between wind and solar. The great virtue of solar panels is that they just sit there… except when hurricanes tear them off their mountings. But, then, high winds are a problem for wind turbines, too.

Assuming we can design and test turbines to withstand hurricane-force winds, there will be a place for wind in Virginia’s long-term energy future. Wind turbines work at night, which solar panels do not, so they can partially offset the daily drop-off in solar production. Furthermore, if Virginia taps large-scale wind resources, most turbines will be located offshore. Flying turbine blades are less of a problem when people are 20 miles away. But solar power poses none of these issues, and solar is being rolled out on a large scale today. Right now.

The biggest barrier to solar power in Virginia isn’t technology, it isn’t grid reliability (not at this stage of development) and it isn’t obstruction in Richmond. State law now proclaims large volumes of renewable energy to be in the public interest, and Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, is forecasting the deployment of more than 5,000 megawatts of solar in its service territory alone. The biggest barrier is local zoning codes, as we are reminded by a story today in The News Virginian.

The Augusta County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance yesterday by a narrow 4-3 vote that allows for the leasing of county land for solar energy use. However, critics said the requirement for a 1,000-foot setback from other residences will discourage solar development. The ordinance also does not allow for solar projects on land zoned industrial.

Roger Willetts, who owns the 44 acres in Stuarts Draft, said his property is taxed $6,000 a year by the county. But he said if a solar farm is allowed, he could generate $60,000 in revenue a year. “I think it is an appropriate use. It won’t employ anybody and it won’t have any bathrooms,” Willett told supervisors.

But under the ordinance approved Wednesday, Willetts’ property would be excluded because solar energy on industrial land is not allowed.

Augusta County, situated in a once-beautiful stretch of the Shenandoah Valley, is not a “rural” county with pristine viewsheds of farms and forests. It is characterized by what I call “rural sprawl” — scattered, low-density residential, commercial and industrial development smeared across the countryside. The viewsheds are despoiled already. Sad to say, solar farms aren’t any uglier than what’s already there.

Everywhere a developer proposes to build a solar farm — arguably the most benign form of energy production known to man — the NIMBYs come out and call for restrictions. NIMBYs don’t want gas pipelines. They don’t want electric transmission lines. They don’t want wind turbines. They don’t even want solar farms.

Ironically, solar power could be a boon to the sluggish economies of Virginia’s non-metropolitan cities and counties. Not only do Virginia’s electric utilities envision more solar, the potential exists for Virginia, long a net importer of energy from other states, to export solar power. Virginia is the southern-most state (excluding the northeast corner of North Carolina) in the PJM electric transmission region. For both political and business reasons, there is an insatiable demand for more renewable power within that 13-state region, which stretches from Virginia north to New Jersey and Illinois. Much of that demand comes from Virginia itself, the nation’s leading location for data centers, because West Coast cloud providers insist upon renewable energy sources. PJM creates a  wholesale market for that region, which makes it easier for energy producers located within it to sell into the wholesale market than it is for energy producers on the outside.

While wind-swept Midwestern states in the PJM region are better situated for wind, Virginia is the best situated for solar. As the southern-most state, the Old Dominion has greater solar energy potential — more sunny days and a latitude closer to the equator — than its northern neighbors. As seen in the table above, Virginia has the highest percentage of sun — defined as the percentage of time between sunrise and sunset that sunshine reaches the ground — as well as the largest number of annual hours of sunlight of any PJM state.

Local government officials in Virginia should think of solar power as an economic development tool. Solar farms provide a royalty-income stream to landowners, and they augment the local tax base. While they create few long-term jobs, they do deliver a burst of short-term construction work. As utilities invest in grid modernization, Virginia can provide solar energy for its own needs — up to 30% of the electricity supply, some say, without diminishing grid reliability — and it can export green power to states to the north. This looks like a once-in-a-generation economic opportunity for rural Virginia. Let’s not blow it!

There’s a Lot of Guilt to Go Around

Brandon Brooks, an African-American and a 2017 graduate of the University of Virginia, now lives in Abuja, Nigeria, where he works in the international development field. Exposure to African perspectives has given him a different view of historical narratives that define the debate over race in the United States.

He recalls being shocked by a sentiment expressed by a first-generation American of African descent several years ago: ““I’m just glad my ancestors never allowed themselves to be taken as slaves.”

In an op-ed published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, Brooks writes proudly of ancestors of those whom we today call African-Americans in resisting slavery, whether by hurling themselves from slave ships crossing the Atlantic, evading slave catchers to reach freedom in northern states, or rising in open revolt, as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner did. (If he had had more space, he could have noted the many other ways in which slaves resisted or asserted their freedom — by striking and killing overseers or masters, committing suicide and infanticide, roaming freely from plantation to plantation under the cover of night’s darkness, escaping to English warships during the War of 1812, and the like.)

But Brooks also notes a gaping hole in the debate over the historical blame for the tragedy of slavery — the role played by the Africans themselves.

Black Americans were by no means the sole victims of slavery. Congolese historian Elikia M’Bokolo suggests as many as 9 million slaves were transported north from the continent’s interior as part of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, some going as far as Persia and India. The rulers of the Bornu and Sokoto caliphates, both located in present-day Nigeria, regularly enslaved non-Muslims, while in the Kingdom of the Kongo local rulers took men, women, and children as prizes of war and forced them to work on vast plantations. Much like their southern white counterparts, elites in these societies recognized slavery as an easy means of securing greater status, wealth, and labor. Slavery was never quite as peculiar as many have made it out to be.

Yet this aspect of the global slave trade is largely overlooked in our social discourse, and attempts to raise broader awareness of this issue have not always been positively received. …

Faced with the prospect of confronting a topic as painful and disturbing as the history of slavery, it is simply easier to ignore historical evidence that is unpleasing to hear. To put it another away, downplaying Africans’ role in supporting the slave trade is the logical equivalent of Southern conservatives contending that states’ rights was the underlying cause of the United States Civil War. (See my previous post about Corey Stewart’s interpretation of the Civil War. — JAB) Both viewpoints are intended to avoid harsh realities, be it that one’s ancestors were complicit in one of the most atrocious crimes known to mankind or the fact that some people of color, driven by avarice and bigotry, had played a critical role in sustaining the institution.

Here’s what I would say to those who dwell on historical grievances to support racial identity politics: While we are to some degree defined by our ancestry, we are not our ancestors. We are not to blame for the misdeeds of our ancestors. We are responsible for our deeds and misdeeds. History is full of cruelty and injustice inflicted by one group upon another. The great accomplishment of the United States is for diverse peoples to see themselves as Americans imbued with rights as individuals, not rights belonging to racial and ethnic groups. It has been a long, hard journey getting from the Medieval concept of the “rights of Englishmen” to the Enlightenment concept of rights inherent to all, and we’ve had a lot of ugly and tragic history to surmount. But we’re almost there. Let us not relapse.

History, Slavery and the Confederate Nation

Corey Stewart seems intent upon sabotaging his long-shot U.S. senatorial bid against Sen. Tim Kaine by questioning the premise that the Civil War was fought over slavery. His recent comments to The Hill — “I don’t believe that the Civil War was ultimately fought over the issue of slavery” — have been met by stupefaction in many quarters, such as, to pick an example pulled randomly off Google, the website Splinter, which documents in a devastating manner how Southern secessionists very clearly drew a link between secession and slavery.

To be clear, I am no fan of Corey Stewart, whose brand of white-identity politics I totally oppose. But I’m no fan either of people who take other peoples’ quotes out of context, and that seems to be what has happened with some of Stewart’s other comments — partially because of Stewart’s inarticulate expression of his thoughts and partially because his foes are so eager to skewer him that they have no more regard for the truth than they claim he does.

Here is how The Hill describes what Stewart said:

In a Monday interview with Hill.TV’s “Rising,” Stewart, who recently won the GOP nomination in the Virginia Senate race, said that not all parts of Virginia’s history are “pretty.”

But he said he doesn’t associate slavery with the war.

“I don’t at all. If you look at the history, that’s not what it meant at all, and I don’t believe that the Civil War was ultimately fought over the issue of slavery,” Stewart said.

When “Rising” co-host Krystal Ball pressed him again if the Civil War was “significantly” fought over slavery, Stewart said some of them talked about slavery, but added that most soldiers never owned slaves and “they didn’t fight to preserve the institution of slavery.”

“We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who were fighting at that time and from their perspective, they saw it as a federal intrusion of the state,” he said.

Clearly, it is absurd to deny an association between slavery and the Civil War. U.S. politics in the 1840s and 1850s was defined by the conflict over expansion of slavery to the U.S. territories. “Bloody Kansas” was fought over the expansion of slavery into Kansas. Abolitionists were calling for an end to slavery. John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry sought to spark a slave revolt. The Republican Party in 1860 campaigned on a platform to end the expansion of of the institution to new states (though not to abolish it). In that context, the election of Lincoln precipitated South Carolina’s secession from the union.

Does that mean slavery was the sole reason for secession? No. Southern states, whose economies depended upon cotton exports to Europe, grated against Northern-inspired tariffs that raised the cost of manufactured goods. Southern politicians had different views on the propriety of state funding of public improvements. They also argued in favor of states rights, although it must be acknowledged that such arguments were used as a primarily as a defense of the institution of slavery. Historians can argue over semantics — was slavery the primary cause of the War or merely an important contributor? — but no one can deny that the secession of Southern states was intimately bound with issues relating to slavery.

But that’s not what Stewart really was driving at. It is clear from the context of his remarks that he was addressing not the political and institutional causes of the Civil War but the motivation of the people who fought in the war. He is correct to say that most Southern whites did not own slaves and that many cited other reasons in letters and diaries, such as defense of their homes and states, as justification for fighting.

Overlooked in the 21st-century debate over Civil War statues and other aspects of our national past is the reality that Southerners’ motivations evolved as the war progressed. As their shared sacrifices mounted during four years of total war, the white Southern populace developed a sense, lacking at the beginning of the war, of shared nationhood. To win the war and preserve its independence, the Confederacy adopted many measures such as conscription and heavy taxation that many would have found objectionable before the war. Most remarkably, in 1865 near the end of the war, the Confederate Congress authorized the emancipation and arming of 300,000 slaves to fight in Southern armies — thus decimating the peculiar institution that Southerners had sought at the beginning of the war to defend.

“In the beginning the Confederate South was a cause, the sanctification of the Old South status quo,” wrote Emory M. Thomas in “The Confederate Nation 1861-1865.” “By the fall of 1864 … the Confederacy lived on in the steadfastness of its soldiers. … In the end Southerners themselves decided for emancipation in the vain hope of national survival. … The Confederate experience was a positive attempt to transcend a ‘peculiar’ past in order to achieve Southern self-determination.”

In other words, by the end of the Civil War, the war was not about preserving slavery — it was about preserving the Southern nation. And in that sense, Stewart’s causal remarks were accurate.

It is entirely apt to question why Stewart has embraced this issue. What is his political motive in referring to the Civil War during a 2018 political campaign? And what, other than political self-annihilation for himself and the Republican party, can he hope to accomplish in a state where only a fraction of the population can trace its ancestry to Confederate soldiers? That said, regarding the facts of the matter, he has a point. And to deny those facts is to embrace the very historical illiteracy of which Stewart stands accused.

State to Support Shipyard Hiring of 7,000

Rendering of the Columbia-class submarine

Governor Ralph Northam announced this morning a partnership with Newport News Shipbuilding to support the hiring of almost 7,000 people, including the creation of 2,000 new jobs, over the next five years.

These new hires will support shipyard contracts to build components for new Columbia-class submarines in addition to existing work such as construction of Virginia-class submarines, the refueling and complex overhaul and defueling of the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, and the construction of Ford-class aircraft carriers, according to a press release from the Governor’s Office.

Today’s announcement was part of a larger “Build Virginia” initiative to “connect workers throughout the Commonwealth with training and employment opportunities in the skilled trades.” This effort will focus initially on connecting jobseekers and employers in the shipbuilding industry, but will broaden to other industries such as construction and advanced manufacturing.

“Newport News Shipbuilding’s success is important not just for Hampton Roads, but for the entire Commonwealth. Therefore, it is critical that we support growth of this magnitude with an innovative partnership between state agencies that will address the company’s workforce and training needs and supply a pipeline of skilled talent,” said Northam. “We have a responsibility as a Commonwealth to ensure that every single one of these jobs gets filled with a skilled and trained Virginian who is ready to succeed.”

As the U.S. economy reaches full employment and critical skills shortages are hindering expansion in industry after industry, even major players such as Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, are having trouble meeting the demand for labor. The surge in hiring has overwhelmed the capacity of the company’s renowned apprenticeship school, where enrollment is limited to about 225 apprentices.

Virginia has a long history of state support for the giant shipbuilding company, an anchor of the Hampton Roads economy. In 2016, according to the governor’s press release, the General Assembly approved the Advanced Shipbuilding Production Facility Grant Program providing up to $46 million to help Newport News Shipbuilding upgrade its foundry and invest in facilities necessary to build Columbia-class submarines. The company will be eligible for these grants if they make capital investments of at least $750 million and create at least 1,000 jobs in the Columbia-class submarine program.

The governor’s announcement does not assign a monetary value to the initiative. While Northam describes the partnership as “innovative,” the only tangible new commitment noted in the press release is the appointment of Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball to “coordinate support from existing economic development programs.” These include:

  • The Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s Virginia Jobs Investment Program will provide state-funded consultative services and funding to support-employee training activities.
  • A GO Virginia grant and state funding will create the nation’s first workforce program in digital shipbuilding at Old Dominion University. The Virginia Digital Shipbuilding Workforce Program will develop a curriculum that can be shared with education and training partners statewide to prepare the current and future workforce for digital manufacturing jobs in shipbuilding.
  • The Virginia Employment Commission will continue to support Newport News Shipbuilding’s job creation through its Career Works Centers in Hampton and Norfolk, which host hiring events, pre-screen applicants, and support employer interviews.
  • The Virginia Community College System offers training and credentials pertinent to shipbuilding through FastForward, a workforce credential program.
  • The New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program (WCG) was developed during the 2016 Virginia General Assembly session to sustain a supply of credentialed workers to fill high-demand occupations. WCG funds supported 441 enrollments in welding, pipefitting, machining, milling, and electrical in fiscal 2017, and 767 enrollments in fiscal 2018.
  • The General Assembly also provided funding from January 2012 through June 2014 for marine-skilled trades training. Under this program, Newport News Shipbuilding partnered with three regional community colleges to offer three-week pre-hire training programs in seven trades that have produced over 400 trainees to date, of whom 95 percent have been offered jobs at the shipyard.

Does Anyone Care about U.S. Children?

Youth for Tomorrow facility, Prince William County

Over the weekend, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine visited the Youth for Tomorrow facility in Prince William County that has been housing undocumented-immigrant children for the past six years. The visit highlighted his call the previous day for the Trump administration “to assure us that every single one of the children they separated from their parents is quickly and safely returned to their families.”

Last week Governor Ralph Northam ordered Virginia’s National Guard contingent serving on the U.S. Southwest border to come home. He ordered the Guard to withdraw four soldiers and one helicopter from Arizona, he said, “until the federal government ends its enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their parents.”

Now that they’ve made clear their antipathy to the policies of the Trump administration, perhaps Kaine and Northam can turn their attention to a near-identical problem that has festered here in Virginia for decades: the separation of children from their parents in the administration of criminal justice in the U.S.

While the separation of children and parents at the border has dominated national news coverage for a couple of weeks now, the issue of child-parent separation inside the U.S. had barely warranted any attention at all. Ever. A rare exception was a USA Today article published in 2014, “Who’s Watching the Kids?

The Justice Department and police officials across the nation are directing their agencies to deal with thousands of children who are left behind following the arrests of parents, from surprise raids at family homes to roadside traffic stops.

Few law enforcement agencies have policies that specifically address the continuing care of children after such arrests, despite an estimated 1.7 million children who have at least one parent in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of children jumps to about 2.7 million when parents detained in local jails are included. …

Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the nation’s largest organization of police officials, are beginning to roll out guidelines to agencies across the country. It is an unusual attempt to shield children — often forgotten in the chaotic moments before and after arrests — from unnecessary “trauma” related to their parents’ detention.

I’m trying to understand the logic of those who oppose the separation of children and parents. Does the objection extend to all children separated from parents who enter the criminal justice system? Or does the insistence upon non-separation apply only to those who are trying to enter the United States?

When Kaine said, “every single one of the children they separated from their parents [should be] quickly and safely returned to their families,” does his logic apply to U.S. families? What would such a policy look like? Should children be admitted into jails and prisons to reside with their mothers? Or should mothers be released from jails and prisons to be with their children? Did Kaine act to prevent such policies when he was mayor of Richmond? If child-parent separation is such a moral travesty, why didn’t he?

When Northam demands that the federal government “end its enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their parents,” how would he describe state policy toward the separation of children from Virginia parents who are arrested and put into jail? Do we have a “zero tolerance” policy in Virginia, or are there instances in which parents are released from incarceration on the grounds of humanity? Does Northam even know what the policies and practices prevail in Virginia?

If Kaine believes that illegal-immigrant children should not be separated from their parents entering the criminal justice system, is he prepared to submit legislation to prevent the same from happening to U.S. children? If not, why not?Does he think U.S.-born children are less deserving of compassion?

If Northam decries the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” toward the separation of children, is he prepared to act against Virginia localities that also might have zero-tolerance policies? Does his heart not go out to Virginia children deprived of a mother’s embrace?

Young children are always innocent victims in these things, and they always deserve our compassion. But maybe, just maybe, the administration of justice in the real world gets really complicated and messy because the issues are inherently difficult. People in the law-enforcement community have been wrestling with these issues for years. I’d take Kaine and Northam a lot more seriously if they’d spoken up before now and if they’d addressed the practices in their own back yard.

Nonprofit Journalism Comes to Virginia

Richmond Mercury start-up team. Robert Zullo at right. (Photo credit: Richmond BizSense)

As Virginia print journalism continues to decline, a new business model has emerged — an Internet-based model supported by non-profit foundations.

The Virginia Mercury, an online publication, will report state government and policy news coming out of the General Assembly on topics such as healthcare, campaign finance and criminal justice. Funding will come from Washington, D.C.-based nonprofits Hopewell Fund and New Venture Fund as part of an initiative called The Newsroom.

The editor will be Robert Zullo, a veteran reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch whose most recent beat had him covering Dominion Energy and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. He will be joined by reporters from the Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot.

Who are these organizations, what do they expect of the online publications they are engendering, and what can we expect of The Virginia Mercury?

Here’s how the New Venture Fund describes itself: “We execute a range of donor-driven public interest projects in conservation, global health, public policy, international development, education, disaster recovery, and the arts.” While some of its initiatives appear to be non-political, many reflect liberal-progressive priorities.

The Hopewell Fund makes no bones about its progressive orientation. It “specializes in helping donors, social entrepreneurs, and other changemakers quickly launch new, innovative social change projects. Hopewell’s staff … has experience across sectors such as domestic and global health, public policy, education, civic engagement, and civil rights.”

So, how will progressive values at the foundation level be reflected in the local coverage of news? NC Policy Watch, a project of the NC Justice Center, is an avowedly progressive publication. Its blog is entitled, “The Progressive Pulse.” Progressive viewpoints color the commentary, as is evident from such headlines as “New voter suppression proposals echo North Carolina’s dark past,” and “GOP leaders seek to poison school safety bill with partisan attack on the Affordable Care Act.”

The Colorado Independent appears to be, as its name implies, less ideologically driven. Its mission states, “We strive to report the news with context, social conscience, and soul.” Its staff cover the beats of civil rights, environment/energy, criminal justice, education, health and politics. My sense from a cursory inspection of the website is that the Independent approaches issues from a center-left perspective but is not blatantly partisan.

Maryland Matters strikes me, also on the basis of cursory inspection, as an insider’s take at Maryland politics written for insiders. The website bills itself as “independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit.”

What model of journalism does Zullo espouse?

Writes  Richmond BizSense:

Zullo said the site will focus on enhancing coverage of Virginia government and policy issues that its backers believe are getting overlooked or lost in the shuffle. He said the site would have elements of news site Vox in its coverage of topics such as immigration, poverty and energy and environment.

Says Style Weekly:

Broadly, coverage will include energy and the environment, transportation, health care, criminal justice, and eventually education. “FOIA and elections are what we want to cover right out of the gate,” Zullo says. “As the capitol press corps has shrunk, a lot of meatier issues tend to get left by the wayside. I think there are a lot of issues with Virginia’s FOIA laws. Lots of exemptions, lots of loopholes.”

Zullo covered Dominion Energy and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from what I would describe as a center-left perspective. His reporting was comprehensive and (as far as I could tell) accurate. He tackled complex topics. He would make sure that all relevant points of view were reflected. However, he framed his articles — on topics ranging from coal ash disposal to erosion-and-sediment control by interstate gas pipelines — so that Dominion and the ACP were always on the defensive. From my vantage point, they were almost always legitimate stories. Zullo didn’t do fake news. As a journalist, I considered him a worthy competitor. But I think this is fair to say: His coverage consistently highlighted the arguments of Dominion’s environmentalist antagonists.

There’s nothing wrong with that — as long as there’s someone else looking to flesh out other sides of the controversies. When Dominion sponsored Bacon’s Rebellion, my coverage of energy and environmental issues reflected my conservative-libertarian point of view. I pursued angles on stories — particularly those relating to the reliability of the electric grid — that were consistent with my priorities of sound economic policy. The public interest is served when multiple viewpoints are aired.

As long as the Richmond Mercury practices responsible journalism, I have no concerns about the publication, even if it is backed by foundations dedicated to progressive political goals. My greatest fear is a government free from accountability, and I have every confidence that Zullo and his team will help keep the politicians in Richmond honest.

Maps that Should Terrify Republicans

Building on Don’s post from earlier this morning (“Does the RPV have the guts to scuttle the GA?”), I would add to the list of fundamental changes Republicans should seek to enact before they lose control of the General Assembly  — redistricting reform.

Here’s what Virginia’s congressional districts look like now after Republican gerrymandering, according to the FiveThirtyEight blog Atlas of Redistricting: Five Republican-leaning districts, four Democratic-leaning districts, and two swing districts.

Here’s what the congressional map would look like after the districts are gerrymandered to favor Democrats: Seven Democrat-leaning districts and four Republican-leaning districts.


And here’s what the districts would look like if drawn to be geographically compact without favoring either party: three Republican-leaning districts, three Democratic-leaning districts, and five competitive districts.


What are the chances of seeing something resembling the third map? About zero. Republicans will cling to the hope that they can miraculously hold on to a General Assembly majority and control of the redistricting process. Democrats smell blood in the water, and they will be satisfied with nothing less than the second map.

As always, Virginia will remain a state where politicians pick their voters, not a state where voters pick their politicians.

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.

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.

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.