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Emma Gauthier

Hundreds rally at Virginia Capitol for education reform

Crowd Picture

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Bells chiming through Capitol Square were drowned out Monday as hundreds of education advocates dressed in red chanted for lawmakers to “fund our future.” 

The Virginia Education Association and Virginia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations organized the rally to restore school funding to pre-recession levels, increase teacher pay and reinstate collective bargaining. The VEA is made up of more than 40,000 education professionals working to improve public education in the commonwealth. Virginia AFL-CIO advocates for laws that protect current and retired workers. 

An estimated 600 to 800 people attended the rally, according to The Division of Capitol Police. Participants wore red in support of Red for Ed, a nationwide campaign advocating for a better education system. 

Speakers took to the podium, including VEA President Jim Livingston and Vice President James Fedderman.

“We do this for our children, they are the reason we are here,” Livingston said. “They are the reason we put our blood, sweat and tears into this profession that we call public education.”

 Stafford Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kinzer and Fairfax County School Board member Abrar Omeish also spoke along with teachers from multiple counties.

Richmond Public Schools announced last week that it would close for the rally after a third of teachers, almost 700, took a personal day to participate. 

“We are proud that so many of our educators will be turning out to advocate for RPS and all of Virginia’s public schools,” RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras stated in a press release.

The 2020 budget puts average RPS teacher salary projections back near the 2018 level of $51,530. Richmond teachers had a 22% salary bump to $63,161 in 2019. They are projected in 2020 to earn on average $51,907, an almost 18% decrease from the previous year. 

“Last year we demonstrated our power to tell the General Assembly that it is time, it is past time, to fund our future,” Livingston said.

A rally held last year called for higher teacher salaries and better school funding. Legislators announced that teachers would receive a 5% salary increase in the state budget.

The Virginia Department of Education stated that the budgeted average salary for teachers statewide in 2020 is $60,265; however, teachers in many counties and cities will be paid less than that, with the lowest average salary in Grayson County Public Schools at $39,567. Arlington County Public School teachers will have the highest average salary in the state at $81,129, with other Northern Virginia schools close behind. 

The VDE report showed that in 2017, Virginia ranked 32nd in the country with an average teacher salary of $51,994, compared to the national average of $60,477. 

Commonwealth Institute

“We are often putting our own money into things and we need help,” said Amanda Reisner, kindergarten teacher at E.D. Redd Elementary School. “We have buildings that are falling apart, we don’t have enough supplies, we don’t have enough technology.”

The Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based organization that analyzes fiscal issues, reported that state funding per student has dropped 7.6% since 2009, from $6,225 to $5,749. In addition, public schools in Virginia since 2009 have lost over 2,000 support staff and over 40 counselors and librarians, while the number of students has increased by more than 52,000. 

HB 582, patroned by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, proposes the reinstatement of collective bargaining for public employees. According to the VEA, Virginia is one of three states that does not allow collective bargaining, the power to negotiate salaries and working conditions by a group of employees and their employers. 

The bill would also create the Public Employee Relations Board, which would determine appropriate methods of bargaining and hold elections for representatives to bargain on behalf of state and local government workers. 

“Collectively we bargain, divided we beg,” said AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays. “The Virginia AFL-CIO and the VEA, we stand hand in hand together.”

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Marijuana reform advocates divided between decriminalization or legalization

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Advocates dressed in black stood Wednesday at the base of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial to voice their support of marijuana legalization, repeating a variation of, “the time is now,” in each of their statements. 

Participants dressed in black “in order to stand in solidarity with the black and brown bodies that have been criminalized for decades here in the commonwealth,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, co-founder of Marijuana Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that aims to educate people on the history of cannabis criminalization in the U.S. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, along with Marijuana Justice and RISE for Youth, a campaign committed to promoting alternatives to youth incarceration, held a press conference promoting House Bill 1507, patroned by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. 

“Lean on your legislators and make sure that they understand the effort to legalize marijuana is here and we’re bringing it to your front door because now is the time to fully have criminal justice reform in a meaningful way,” Carroll Foy said. 

The bill wants to exclude marijuana from a list of controlled substances that are illegal to possess. Under current law, less than half an ounce of marijuana is considered a class one misdemeanor.

A “first offender’s rule” is offered on first convictions in lieu of class one misdemeanor penalties. The rule includes probation, drug testing and community service. Subsequent convictions are punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,500.

Possession of more than half an ounce of marijuana is by law considered an intent to distribute and is charged as a felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison. 

Capital News Service reported that in 2018, the only offenses more common than marijuana possession were traffic-related, such as speeding or reckless driving. Marijuana arrests that year were at their highest level in at least 20 years, with nearly 29,000 arrests. 

“Arrests for marijuana possession are significantly higher for blacks and people of color, even though data has shown that there is no higher rate usage with people of color than there are with white people,” said Del. Joshua Cole, D-Stafford, chief co-patron of HB 1507. “But yet we are constantly the ones that are taking the brunt of this.” 

Virginia State Police arrested more white people (25,306) for drug violations in 2018 than African Americans (20,712). While African Americans make up 19% of Virginia’s population, they consisted of nearly half of all marijuana convictions in 2018, according to a Capital News Service analysis of court records. Carroll Foy said that African Americans are three times more likely than any other race to be stopped, arrested and convicted for possession of marijuana. 

Nine other bills have been introduced this session relating to the possession of marijuana. Some propose legalization, while others propose decriminalization. Although the terms are used interchangeably at times, the two carry dramatically different meanings. 

Bills similar to HB 1507, like HB 87 and HB 269, propose the legalization of marijuana, which would lift existing laws that prohibit possession of the substance. 

Senate Bill 2, patroned by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, HB 972, patroned by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and several other bills propose the decriminalization of marijuana. These bills would impose a $50 fee for consuming or possessing marijuna. Ebbin’s bill would raise the threshold amount of marijuana subject to distribution or possession with intent to distribute from one-half ounce to one ounce. Herring’s bill would impose a $250 fee if the offender was consuming marijuana in public. However, the drug would remain illegal.

The ACLU said last week at a press conference that decriminalization and civil offenses still hold and create a number of issues — someone who wants to contest the citation would have to do so without a lawyer, and those who cannot afford to pay upfront would have to go to court, which usually includes more costs and fees. The group instead wants to see a full repeal of the prohibition on marijuana.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring took part in a cannabis conference Sunday and voiced his support for marijuana reform. 

“It's clear time for cannabis reform has come,” Herring said. “Justice demands it, Virginians are demanding it, and I’m going to make sure we get it done.”

Ashna Khanna, legislative director of the ACLU of Virginia, said they have confirmed Herring’s support of HB 1507. The organization, along with 11 others, sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam requesting support of legislation to legalize marijuana and hope that he will be open to meeting with them soon.

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Virginia Denies Vast Majority of Parole Requests, Data Shows

 

By Emma Gauthier and Anna Madigan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Jen Soering and Elizabeth Haysom received parole last month after serving 30 years in state prison for the sensational murder of Haysom’s parents in 1985.

Soering, a German national who had been given two life sentences, and Haysom, a Canadian who had been sentenced to 90 years, were turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.

“The Parole Board has determined that releasing Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom to their ICE deportation detainers is appropriate because of their youth at the time of the offenses, their institutional adjustment and the length of their incarceration,” Adrianne Bennett, who chairs the board, said in a statement at the time.

Soering and Haysom each had been denied parole several times before being granted parole in late November. Their release from the prison system may have given the impression that Virginia has become more lenient in granting parole.

And that’s true: The percentage of parole requests approved jumped from around 3% in 2014-16 to 13.5% in 2017, according to a Capital News Service analysis of Parole Board decisions.

But parole is still pretty rare in Virginia. Between January and October of this year, the Parole Board granted parole 5% of the time. Of more than 17,000 cases considered over the past six years, about 6% received parole.

The system’s critics say Virginia should grant parole more often.

“Considering that parole is a conditional release of an individual, this rate should be much higher,” said Jwa’n Moore, director of Taking Back Our Youth. “I believe that parole was created to prove that incarcerated people can learn from the mistakes that they have committed.”

Taking Back Our Youth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “breaking the cycle” of juvenile incarceration.

Almost 30,000 people are serving time in prison in the commonwealth. In addition, 1,922 people were on parole as of October, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

The newest member of the Parole Board, Kemba Smith Pradia, was appointed in September. At age 24, Pradia was sentenced to 24 years in prison for her participation in her boyfriend’s illegal drug activities. After serving a quarter of her sentence, she was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Following her incarceration, Pradia earned college degrees in social work and law and started a foundation that raises awareness about drug abuse, violence, rehabilitation of ex-offenders and other social issues.

“She would probably bring compassion and empathy to the board,” Moore said. “People who have a personal history with the system have a unique vantage point that those who have historically served on the parole board haven’t had.”

Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but inmates still can get parole if they were sentenced before the law went into effect; were sentenced under the Youthful Offenders Act; or are eligible for geriatric parole.

Inmates can apply for geriatric parole if they are older than 60 and have served at least 10 years or are older than 65 and have served at least five years.

Since 2014, of the approximately 2,900 applications for geriatric parole, 147 — about 5% — have been granted, the data indicated.

Of the 151 inmates older than 80 who have applied for parole, six have been granted. The offenders were denied for various reasons, including the seriousness of the offense and risk to the community. The Parole Board’s decisions generally do not list the crimes that the applicant was convicted of.

The oldest inmate to apply for parole was 92 years old; he was denied.

Of the 182 inmates under 21 who have applied for parole, four have been granted.

According to the data, the youngest inmates to apply for parole were 16 years old: One applied in 2014 and the other in 2018. Both were rejected.

“Minors are still learning and making mistakes that they have to learn from,” Moore said. “They should be held accountable for their actions, but parole gives our youth another chance at a positive lifestyle.”

In 1995, the Virginia General Assembly abolished parole on grounds that doing so would lower the frequency of reincarceration after release. State and federal officials say Virginia has the lowest rate of reincarceration nationwide: 23% of Virginia inmates are reincarcerated within three years of their release from prison.

“Virginia’s latest recidivism numbers are the result of a lot of hard work on the part of both the Department of Corrections and the incarcerated offenders,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in a press release.

In 2000, in Fishback v. Commonwealth, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that juries must be told that parole has been abolished. Between 1995 and that court decision, 471 prisoners were sentenced without their juries knowing that they would not be eligible for parole, according to the Governor’s Commission on Parole Review.

In 2015, the commission recommended that those inmates receive an opportunity for sentence modification. The panel said juries might have had a misconception that offenders could receive a shorter sentence through parole.

“This misconception likely had real consequences, since juries typically hand down harsher sentences than judges,” the commission stated.

During the General Assembly’s 2019 session, legislators filed two bills to allow parole for those convicted before the Fishback ruling. One bill died in a House committee, and the other was defeated by one vote in a Senate committee.

similar bill has been submitted for the legislative session that begins Jan. 8. In addition, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has proposed reinstating parole, and Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, has filed legislation to study that idea. Other legislators have suggested expanding the possibility of parole for inmates who committed crimes as juveniles and have served at least 25 years in prison.

The parole process begins with an interview in which an examiner compiles a summary and recommendation for the Parole Board. The board then evaluates the case based on a number of factors, including compatibility with public safety and the offender’s criminal history and conduct in prison.

Since 2014, the parole board has provided more than 2,000 unique reasons to explain its decisions not to grant parole. The most common reasons include:

  •  “Serious nature and circumstances” of the offender’s crime.
  •  “Release at this time would diminish the seriousness of crime.”
  •  “The Board considers you to be a risk to the community.”
  •  Extensive criminal record
  •  History of violence

About the data in this report

The Virginia Parole Board posts PDFs listing the decisions it makes each month. When the board denies parole, the PDF also lists one or more reasons.

To begin this investigation, we converted 70 PDFs — all of the Parole Board’s decisions from January 2014 through October 2019 — into an Excel file. The exported data, which included both decisions and reasons, totaled almost 76,000 rows.

From the Excel file, we extracted the Parole Board’s decisions in parole cases only (regular parole, geriatric and board review cases). There was a total of 17,240 cases.

We then used Excel’s pivot table feature and Microsoft Access to calculate the percentage of parole requests had been granted or denied each year.

 

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Organization Aims To Feed More People In Need

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every Thursday at 10:30 a.m., John White packs the trunk of his black Mercedes-Benz with meals that he distributes to people in need in Central Virginia. 

For two years, White has been a volunteer with Feed More, a local organization involved with Meals on Wheels and Feeding America that serves Central Virginia through its 10 nutrition-assistance programs.

“It’s been an education for me,” White said. “There’s quite a bit of poverty out there and it’s so good to see the outreach that we have with Meals on Wheels.” 

This Thursday, Kroger is funding over 800 Thanksgiving dinners with a donation of $7,500. This marks the fifth consecutive year that Kroger has donated to Feed More for the holidays. 

“We’re immensely grateful to Kroger for their continued dedication to giving back to the community and their enthusiasm and passion for fighting hunger in Richmond,” Feed More CEO Doug Pick said in a news release. 

The partnership makes it possible for families in need to spend their Thanksgiving enjoying turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and more. 

At least 11% of U.S. households lived in a state of food insecurity at some point in 2018, according to the USDA

Food insecurity is classified as households that are either uncertain of having, or unable to acquire enough food to meet the needs of their family. 

Feed More has existed in Virginia for more than five decades, beginning with the formation of its Meals on Wheels program, which in 1967, served just eight clients.

Since then, the organization has grown to serve almost 200,000 people throughout 29 counties and five cities across Central Virginia. 

“With the support of our community, we are able to provide our neighbors who face hunger with one of the most basic necessities: nourishment,” said Audrey Gilani, marketing coordinator at Feed More. 

More than 1,600 people volunteered with Feed More in 2018, donating a total of nearly 70,000 hours. About 460 groups also volunteered for almost 83,000 hours. 

“I am so impressed with the organization, the efficiency and the good-will spirit of the volunteers at Feed More,” White stated in a social media message. 

Feed More received nearly $45 million worth of donated food in 2018, primarily from retailers, manufacturers and produce growers. Half of the donated food consisted of fresh produce and meat. 

The organization receives millions of pounds of donated food each year. During 2018 the largest donor was Food Lion with more than 5 million pounds, followed by Walmart with about 4.5 million pounds. 

Multiple Feed More programs are dedicated to children living in food insecurity. The Weekend Backpack program distributed over 55,000 meals to 54 schools for children to take home on weekends.

In Central Virginia, one in seven children do not know when their next meal will be, according to Feed More. Gilani says she is pleased with how programs such as Mobile Pantry, School Market and Weekend Backpacks reach vulnerable communities struggling with food access.

“Feed More is there for our neighbors when they need us most,” Gilani said.

Collectively, Feed More has distributed nearly 21 million meals to those in need.

“If the rest of us will just provide them with the resources,” volunteer Bill McCoy said, “the chances of anybody in the region having to go to bed hungry go way down.”

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Black Children More Likely to Live in ‘Concentrated Poverty’

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — African American children are more than seven times as likely as white children in Virginia to live in “concentrated poverty” — neighborhoods where at least 30% of the residents are poor, according to census data compiled by a children’s advocacy group.

Growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods is “one of the greatest risks to child development,” say officials at the nonprofit organization Voices for Virginia’s Children.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a report showing that 91,000 children in Virginia live in concentrated poverty. That figure includes 2% of white children in the commonwealth but 4% of Latino children and 15% of black children.

Overall, 5% of Virginia’s children live in concentrated poverty. That is below the national average of 12%. But while concentrated poverty rates have fallen in most states in recent years, Virginia hasn’t seen any improvement, the study said.

“Children deserve to grow up in neighborhoods where they have the opportunity to thrive. This report shows us that current policies in Virginia are not benefitting all children equitably, and informs where we need to focus our efforts,” said Margaret Nimmo Holland, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children.

“One might think a strong economy would have a positive impact on all families, but we can see from the data that is not the case. Certain groups of children and their families are disproportionately left behind, so we need to target policies that will reach these children specifically.”

According to a news release issued by Voices for Virginia’s Children, children in high-poverty neighborhoods tend to lack access to healthy food and quality medical care, and they often face greater exposure to environmental hazards, such as poor air quality and toxins such as lead. When these children grow up, they are more likely to have lower incomes than children who have moved away from communities of concentrated poverty.

The report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation is titled “Children Living in High Poverty, Low-Opportunity Neighborhoods.” The report is part of a project called KIDS COUNT.

Children in concentrated poverty are a subset of all children living in poverty. In connection with the report, KIDS COUNT released data on the overall poverty rates for children in each state. The data was drawn from the American Community Survey conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Virginia, 28% of African American children and 9% of white children live in poverty, the data showed. For children of all races, the state’s poverty rate is 14%.

Nationwide, 33% of African American children and 11% of white children live in poverty. For children of all races, the national poverty rate is 18%. The rate had been decreasing since 2014 but stalled from 2017 to 2018.

The poverty level is based on income and family size. The poverty threshold for a family of four was $24,858 in 2017, the most recent year in the KIDS COUNT data set.

The states with the highest overall child poverty rates in 2017 were Louisiana (28%) and Mississippi and New Mexico (both 27%). Then came the District of Columbia and West Virginia at 26%.

The states with the highest rates of African American children in poverty were Louisiana (47%) and Mississippi (42%). Then came Ohio at 42% and Alabama, Michigan and Nevada at 41%.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation report said it is important to tackle the problem of concentrated poverty. The problem is especially prevalent in urban areas. About 23% of children in cities live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 5% of children in suburban communities.

Getting children out of concentrated poverty pays off.

“Children under age 13 who moved from low-income neighborhoods to more affluent communities had higher incomes as adults compared to peers who remained in impoverished areas,” the report stated. It urged governments to:

  • End housing discrimination against people who have been incarcerated.
  • Support subsidies and other incentives for developers to expand the number of affordable housing units.
  • Provide incentives to large community institutions, such as hospitals and universities, that hire and purchase locally and contract with businesses owned by women and people of color.

Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, said public education also is part of the solution.

“Ensuring that children are in a safe community with access to a high-quality school — these are important goals to help children escape from poverty,” Tegeler said. “The educational disadvantage that is associated with high-poverty neighborhoods is possible to overcome, but very difficult.”

Tegeler said concentrated poverty resulted from “a long history of intentional segregation.” He blamed “municipal fragmentation” and the way land use, schools and taxation were used to separate communities by income.

Nationwide, 13 million children live in poverty, with 8.5 million in concentrated poverty.

“It’s important to recognize that children are only young once, and there’s only a few pressing years we have to really help children realize their potential,” Tegeler said.

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