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GREENSVILLE/EMPORIA DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES

LOCAL BOARD MEETING

The Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services Administrative Board will hold its regular meeting Thursday, June 20, 2019, at 3:30 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services located at 1748 East Atlantic Street.

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White Supremacy Movements Spark Rise In Religion-based Hate

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Vandals spray-painted 19 swastikas on the walls of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia last October. A young woman leaving a mosque with her friends in Sterling, Virginia, after nightly prayers in the summer of 2017 was raped and killed. Someone scrawled “F*** God & Allah” across a Farmville mosque in October 2017. Later that year, a Fairfax teacher pulled off a Muslim student’s hijab in front of her class.

“These events aren’t isolated,” said Samuel J. West, a doctoral student of social psychology and neuroscience at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They’re happening in conjunction with a well-documented rise of activity of the white power movement and white supremacist organizations.”

In Virginia, hate crimes include illegal, criminal or violent acts committed against a person or property on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. But often, such offenses are not classified as hate crimes. Because it’s hard to assess intent, it’s rare to be charged with a hate crime.

“The bar is pretty high for that conviction of ‘hate crime,’” said West, whose research focuses on the development of aggressive behavior across populations. “You not only have to be proven guilty of intent, but you also have to be proven of a specific kind of intent … not only are you the one who attacked them, you attacked them because they’re queer or black or Muslim.”

Tangible forms of intent for religiously based hate crimes can be anything from social media posts expressing hatred for the specific targeted group to verbal slurs yelled when committing the hate crime.

But if intent can’t be proved, offenses that may involve bias aren’t considered hate crimes. A case in point: In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2015, three Muslims were shot dead by a white man in their apartment over an argument about a parking spot in the complex. The case was classified as a parking dispute.

West said classifying acts like the Chapel Hill shooting as a parking dispute are a reflection of the nation’s judiciary system.

“The U.S. legal system is absolutely created by white men,” West said. “And it certainly makes sense that it would favor them, especially in these cases.”

Because of how hard it is to prove intent, several episodes of religiously motivated violence are often labeled “bias incidents” by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group that collects data on religiously motivated hate actions and crimes.

“Not only are incidents like those increasing, but the violent nature of those incidents is also increasing,” said Zainab Arain, CAIR research and advocacy manager.

In its 2018 Civil Rights Report, CAIR found nearly 2,600 anti-Muslim-based bias incidents in 2017 — a 17% increase from the previous year. Almost half of those took place within the first three months of the year.

That rise parallels a 23% national increase in religiously motivated hate crimes against any religious group — the second-highest number of hate crimes based on religion. The highest number of religiously motivated hate crimes was recorded in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks.

Virginia State Police recorded 44 religion-based hate crimes in 2017, the latest year for which data are available. That was almost double the 23 religion-based hate crime the previous year.

Of the 44 offenses in 2017, half were anti-Jewish, and eight were classified as anti-Muslim. White men were the largest group of offenders for all hate crimes in Virginia.

Arain said the number of hate crimes is likely higher than what reports show for two reasons: underreporting due to fear of retaliation and inaccuracy of FBI data.

“The FBI does collect it only from law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement agencies are not required to report it to the FBI,” Arain said. “Many law enforcement agencies don’t event collect hate crime data in their own municipalities.”

As hate crimes and bias incidents on the basis of religion sharply increase, Arain said, a few factors are at play.

“This across-the-board rise in nativist movements is playing a role in increasing religious discrimination and religious-based hate crimes,” she said, mentioning a slew of nativist campaigns around the world, including the Chinese cleansing of Uighur Muslims.

When it comes to the U.S., Arain said she considers President Donald Trump a “white supremacist.” She said his election has contributed to rising hate.

“That emboldens people who share the same beliefs or ideas and have similar biases and prejudices to act out on their ideas and commit and perpetrate these hate crimes targeting various religious minorities,” she said.

In conjunction with rising hate-fueled violence, domestic hate groups have also increased. There are more than 1,000 hate groups in the U.S. — the most the nation has seen more than in two decades — according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thirty-nine of those groups call Virginia home.

West called these groups “terrorist organizations.”

Hate crimes and acts of terror do overlap. There is, however, one characteristic that separates the two.

“A hate crime doesn’t have to be politically motivated,” said David Webber, assistant professor in VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “But an act of terrorism does.”

While there isn’t a standard definition of “terrorism,” the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines it as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Recent incidents like the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the church bombings in Sri Lanka are classified as acts of terror since they were fueled by political motives.

Hate crimes are also punishable by law, while domestic acts of terror are not. International acts of terror in the U.S. or by U.S. citizens, however, are punishable under U.S. law — for example, pledging allegiance to ISIS or al-Shabaab.

Webber referenced the car attack at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as an example of domestic terrorism labeled and punished as a different crime. An avowed neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields Jr. was convicted of murder for driving into a group of counterprotesters and killing Heather Heyer.

“When he used his car to kill that person in Charlottesville, he was never charged with an act of terrorism,” Webber said. “Even though by a definition of terrorism, he was involved in an act of political violence for political reasons, and he killed someone for it. We call that an act of terrorism.”

But since acts of domestic terrorism aren’t punishable by law in the U.S., Webber said, Fields was charged with a hate crime. On March 27, Fields pleaded guilty to 29 counts of hate crimes — one resulting in Heyer’s death and 28 in connection with injuries to other people.

Both hate crimes and acts of terror are forms of aggression. But aggression is not always expressed as physical violence.

“There are many forms of aggression,” said West, a doctoral student who researches the topic. “You’ve got your run-of-the-mill physical violence, your verbal aggression … then you get into ‘mark your territory’ with things like instrumental violence or relational violence.”

Simple examples of instrumental violence on the basis of religion would be vandalizing the side of a mosque or defacing a Jewish cemetery.

“Most people are not very violent and don’t really like to be unless someone has provoked them or attacked them or offended them in some way,” West said. “That phenomena (of violence and aggression) is one that is so inconsistent with much of human nature.”

But there are reasons why people are drawn to acting out aggressively.

Webber, who researches violent extremism, identifies three key factors why individuals are drawn toward extreme violence and hate-fueled aggression: needs, narratives and networks — “the three N’s” as he calls them.

“People become extremists because they’re striving to fulfill an important psychological need that is universal for all of us,” he said. “The need to feel significant, to feel like you’re valued, to feel like you’re respected.”

Webber said people drawn to extreme violence — whether it be a hate crime, terrorist attack or another form — see an aspect of “heroism” in their actions. This is amplified by the ease of creating communities through social media, he said.

“You used to have to meet with people secretly, talk to them or they have to find a poster on the street,” Webber said. “Now, they can log online and see everything. It expands your reach, the potential recruitment pool that you have. You can put information up and people can read it instantly. And you can draw people into a cause really quickly.”

Recruitment for hate groups outside of social media still exists. White supremacist propaganda — in the form of leaflets handed out on college campuses, flyers, rallies and other events — increased 182% in 2018, according to research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Adding to the hate targeted at specific religious groups is how news outlets portray members of these communities.

“A large contributing factor is likely the negative coverage in the media of certain religious groups,” said Raha Batts, imam of Masjid Ash-Shura in Norfolk, Virginia.

Batts said Western media outlets portray Islam as a “religion of terror.”

West said media bias likely plays a significant role in the dehumanizing of certain outgroups.

“Individuals of different races are treated much differently by the news media,” he said. “A more heinous crime could be committed by a white person, and those [news] articles often are quick to refer to mental illness as being the primary motivation or a primary factor at play.”

But if the perpetrators of violence are non-white, the media raise the specter of terrorism and ties to extremist groups, West said.

Batts is no stranger to bias incidents. A few years ago, he and his family stayed in a hotel in Norfolk before moving to the area permanently. After checking into the hotel, his wife passed a group of men who Batts said had been drinking outside of the building.

“One of them was terribly angry at just the sight of my wife,” Batts said. His wife dresses in niqab, a full-length veil that covers her face. “He began acting kind of erratic. He had a beer bottle, and he slammed the beer bottle on the ground.”

The other men stopped him from approaching his wife, Batts said. But she felt the hostility.

“They were military guys, and they served in Afghanistan together,” Batts said. “This particular person, he had a problem with Muslims.”

Batts said negative media coverage played a role in the bias incident he and his wife experienced.

“I spoke to the young man for some time,” Batts said. “Just explained to him that we’re not terrorists, we’re not anti-America. We’re not your enemy.”

Other faith leaders have recognized the spike in hate crimes and acts of terror against their communities.

“Hate crimes have always committed against us; it’s just a fact of being a Jew,” said Rabbi David Spinrad of the Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s not a new phenomenon.”

Nearly 60% of hate crimes perpetrated across the U.S. in 2017 were anti-Jewish, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. Between 2016 and 2017, anti-Jewish hate crimes rose by 57%.

On Saturday, authorities said, a man with an assault rifle opened fire in a synagogue in a suburb of San Diego, California, killing one person and wounding three. The man has also been charged with arson at a nearby mosque.

Spinrad said interfaith dialogue and solidarity is the best combatant to rising hate.

“This is big — this has so much momentum,” Spinrad said. “The importance of the relationship of American Jews and American Muslims … I can’t overstate that it is huge. They’re coming for you, and they’re coming for me.”

Amid negative news coverage of the Muslim community, Batts echoed Spinrad’s thoughts on interfaith dialogue and building community.

“It’s our job,” Batts said. “We can coexist with one another, and we can work together. There will be certain things that you believe that I don’t necessarily believe. But we can still be good to one another, we can still be kind to one another. We all have the same goals in mind.”

General Assembly Legislative Scorecard

Here is an infographic, created by Capital News Service, showing how many bills each Delegate or Senator introduced this session and how many of those passed or failed.

Delegate Tyler introduced 6, 4 of which passed. Senator Lucas introduced 10 bills, 3 of which passed.

 

Senate Bill Requires Ethics Training for Local Officials

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Local governments that rely on commonwealth's attorneys for legal advice can breathe a sigh of relief: State legislators have discarded a provision that would have prevented commonwealth's attorneys from serving as county, city or town government attorneys.

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved two bills that require training for local elected officials. Both bills originally included clauses that would restrict the commonwealth’s attorney position, but the clauses were removed before the Senate passed the legislation.

SB 1430 and SB 1431, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, would require conflict of interest training and freedom of information training every two years, respectively.

Virginia enforces a law called the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act, which prohibits conflicts and requires economic interests be disclosed for public officers and employees. Conflicts of interest can result when a person:

  • Accepts money, gifts, or services outside of their compensation that influences their official duties

  • Has a relative or spouse with a financial interest in a situation

  • Uses confidential information for economic benefits

Under SB 1430, conflicts and ethics training would be required for all government officials, at least once every two years.

SB 1431 would implement a similar training for government officials regarding the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which mandates Virginia citizens and members of the press have access to all public records of employees, officials and organizations.

Both Democrats and Republicans Demand Gov. Northam’s Resignation

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Across the political spectrum, government officials and advocacy groups are calling for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation after media reports of a racist photo on his page in a college yearbook.

The photo, from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, features two men — one dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe. On Friday, Northam apologized for the photo. On Saturday, he said that it was not him in the picture after all and that he would not resign.

Calls for Northam’s resignation began Friday night and continued throughout Saturday. They came from both sides of the aisle, including Virginia Democrats, House and Senate Republican leaders and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

“When the racist picture first emerged Friday, we were shocked and repulsed. The photo is disturbing and offensive, as unacceptable in 1984 as it is today,” said a statement issued by House Speaker Kirk Cox and other Republicans.

“While we respect the governor’s lifetime of service, his ability to lead and govern is permanently impaired and the interests of the commonwealth necessitate his resignation.”

Democratic leaders agreed.

Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, issued a statement Saturday calling for Northam’s immediate resignation.

“We made the decision to let Gov. Northam do the correct thing and resign this morning — we have gotten word he will not do so this morning. We stand with Democrats across Virginia and the country calling him to immediately resign. He no longer has our confidence or our support.”

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe denounced the photo on Twitter, calling the photos “racist, unacceptable and inexcusable at any age an any time.” He said Northam should resign, deeming the situation “untenable.”

On Saturday afternoon, Attorney General Mark Herring said, “It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down.”

Saturday night, more than a dozen progressive groups – including Planned Parenthood, Equality Virginia and environmental and labor organizations – issued a statement reiterating their call for Northam to leave office.

“We heard what the Governor said today and we are not only unmoved but even more disgusted in his actions and changing stories. We reaffirm our demand that he must immediately resign,” the statement said.

New Virginia Majority, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Progress Virginia are among other groups that have called for Northam to step down.

“No matter the era, or the messenger, blackface costumes and Ku Klux Klan regalia have represented terror and fear for communities of color since Reconstruction,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “There is no excuse for wearing them.”

Panel OKs Rules for Using ‘Dangerous’ Room Dividers at Schools

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On an afternoon last spring, Wesley Lipicky, a third-grader at Franconia Elementary School in Fairfax County, was helping his teacher in the gymnasium when he became caught between a motorized room partition and a gym wall. The 9-year-old boy suffered traumatic head injuries and died that night.

On Monday, a legislative subcommittee unanimously approved a bill calling for additional safety measures on using mechanized room dividers in public schools in hopes of preventing similar accidents in the future.

“Children’s lives are precious, and we as a society must do everything in our power to protect them,” said Kathy Cole, who runs a business that specializes in gymnasium equipment for schools. “These tragic situations can and must be prevented.”

House Bill 1753 would require schools across the commonwealth to take precautions when using motorized room partitions. These mechanisms, also called electronic partitions or doors, are used in schools to divide rooms into smaller spaces. They are heavier and larger than garage doors and most commonly used in school gymnasiums.

Sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, HB 1753 would give public schools that use motorized room partitions one of two options:

  • Install safety sensors that automatically stop the partition if a body passes between the partition and the edge of the wall

  • Or operate the partition only when there are no students in the building

Wesley’s death prompted Sickles to sponsor the legislation.

“These dangerous dividers that are in a lot of our schools,” Sickles said, “need to have technology applied to them that will prevent this kind of thing from occurring.”

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee voted 8-0 in favor of the bill. It now goes to the full committee and then to the House of Delegates for consideration.  

Putting safety sensors on a motorized room partition could cost $3,000 to $6,000, Sickles estimated. He said such sensors would be a useful investment for partitions that must be used multiple times a day, such as in the gymnasium.

Mindful of the costs, the subcommittee suggested that schools have the option of using the partitions only when students aren’t around.

The legislation also would require annual training for school employees on operating the room dividers.

Wesley’s death on May 18 is not the sole case of a student or teacher killed by an electronic partition.

“Unfortunately, this kind of thing has happened before,” Sickles said, citing deaths in 1973, 1991 and 2001, as well as several injuries caused by partitions.

New York is the only state that requires safety devices on motorized room partitions and training for school staff to operate the doors. That state passed its law after two deaths caused by electronic partitions.

“History has taught us that these accidents happen more frequently than most people realize,” Cole said. “No parent should have to lose his or her beautiful son or daughter due to this safety error ever again.”

State Lawmakers Kill Legislation to Protect Student Journalists

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A legislative panel rejected a bill protecting student journalists from administrative censorship on a tie vote Monday.

House Bill 2382, sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, would have protected free speech for student journalists in public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as public institutions of higher education.

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee deadlocked 3-3 on the bill after hearing testimony from students and faculty advisers from high schools and colleges across the commonwealth.

Kate Carson, a former writer and editor for The Lasso, the student newspaper at George Mason High School in Falls Church, said her school’s administration censored several controversial topics the publication attempted to cover, including bathroom vandalism, absence policy abuse and a sexting scandal.

“As student journalists, we were perfectly positioned to report on these issues and separate fact from rumor,” Carson said. “Instead, The Lasso was censored when we attempted to cover the vandalism and policy abuse. We didn’t even attempt to cover the sexting scandal.”

One teacher told the panel how her students’ paper was shut down and she was removed as adviser after the students published an article about renovating the school.

“We have seen an increasing number of censorship cases in the commonwealth,” Hurst said. Hurst said the bill seeks to reapply the Tinker standard to student free speech, which was established in a 1969 Supreme Court case. This standard requires administrators to have reasons for censoring content, Hurst said.

In 1988, the Tinker standard was overruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which laid out that school administrations have the right to censor school-sponsored media if they wish.

“All this bill does is protect against what we call the ‘making-the-school-look-bad censorship,’ the image-motivated censorship,” said Frank LoMonte, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center and head of the New Voice Initiative, a campaign network for anti-censorship laws. “Anything a school can stop you from saying on a T-shirt or ball cap, they can stop you from saying in a newspaper.”

Two people voiced concerns with the legislation, saying the protections should not apply to school-sponsored speech or to young student journalists.
“We’re not talking about an 18- or a 19-year-old; we’re talking about possible a 14- or 15-year-old writing a story,” said Thomas Smith with the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. “There are many instances in the code where they treat college students and post-secondary students different from secondary students.”

The legislation would have protected “school-sponsored media,” which includes any material “prepared, substantially written, published or broadcast” by student journalists and is distributed or available to the student body. The bill prohibited administrative censorship or disciplinary action unless content:

  • Is libelous or slanderous material
  • Unjustifiably invades privacy
  • Violates federal or state law
  • Creates or incites students to create a clear and present danger

If HB 2382 had passed, Virginia would have been the 15th state to provide protections for high school or college journalists. Half of the states that have passed similar legislation to Hurst’s bill did so in the last four years. Five other states introduced bills in 2019 to protect student journalists.

Here is how the House Education subcommittee voted on HB 2382:

01/28/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (3-Y, 3-N)

YEAS — Davis, Tyler, Bagby — 3.

NAYS — Bell, Richard P., Helsel, Bulova — 3.

Panel OKs Bill Seeking Data on Solitary Confinement

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A House committee voted unanimously Friday to require reports on solitary confinement in prisons across Virginia.

House Bill 1642 would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to submit semiannual reports to the General Assembly and governor detailing the DOC’s use of solitary confinement.

The House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety approved the bill, 21-0. The panel sent the measure to the House Appropriation Committee for a look at its financial impact before it goes to the House floor.

Also referred to as “restrictive housing,” solitary confinement is defined as isolation in a cell for 22-24 hours of the day with little to no human interaction. The DOC does not currently report statistics on the number of inmates held in restrictive housing.

Sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, the legislation would provide the state legislature and governor statistics on the department’s use of restrictive housing in correctional facilities. The information would also be posted online.

The semiannual report would include:

  • Demographics such as age, race, ethnicity and status of mental health
  • The average daily population held in restrictive housing
  • The number of offenders placed in and released from restrictive housing
  • Documentation of self-harm and suicide incidents or attempts
  • The number of days each offender spent in confinement
  • The number of full-time mental health staff

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia called on Gov. Ralph Northam in May to ban solitary confinement and limit its use to rare and exceptional cases. The ACLU said inmates should remain in restrictive housing for no more than 15 consecutive days, which aligns with international human rights standards. Currently, Virginia inmates placed in restrictive housing spend an average of 2.7 years in confinement, according to a 2018 ACLU report.

Nationally, about 88,000 inmates — or approximately 5 percent of all prisoners — are held in solitary confinement, according to a study done at Yale Law School.

Virginia has implemented reforms for restrictive housing before. The number of inmates held in solitary confinement at Red Onion — a maximum-security prison in Wise County — dropped 85 percent in the last decade. The facility, known for its use of restrictive housing, currently houses about 70 inmates in solitary confinement compared to 500 at the start of the decade, according to a Washington Post article.

The House Appropriations Committee could address HB 1642 as soon as Monday.

In the Senate, two Fairfax Democrats have offered similar legislation. Sen. David Marsden has proposed SB 1085, and Sen. Richard Saslaw has filed SB 1777.

On Friday, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee folded Marsden’s bill into Saslaw’s and then unanimously approved SB 1077.

Panel Wants Prisons to Modify Tampon Ban

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia Department of Corrections would have to modify its official but unenforced policy of barring women from wearing feminine hygiene products when they visit a state prison, under a bill approved Friday by a House committee.

The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 19-1 in favor of House Bill 1884 and sent the legislation to the full House of Delegates for approval next week.

HB 1884 would require the DOC to modify the policy it announced in September for visitors wearing menstrual cups and tampons.

The rule banned the feminine products in an attempt to prevent people from smuggling contraband into facilities.

“If someone chooses to visit a Virginia Department of Corrections inmate, he or she cannot have anything hidden inside a body cavity,” a DOC spokeswoman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time. “There have been many instances in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs into our prisons by concealing those drugs in a body cavity, including the vagina.”

Soon after the announcement, Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, suspended the policy until further review.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, would require the DOC to rewrite the restrictions. As amended by the committee, the measure would require the DOC to:

  • Notify visitors about the policy prohibiting menstrual cups and tampons ahead of their visit.
  • Provide visitors the option of removing any prohibited menstrual product and replacing it with a state-issued one in order to have a contact visit with an inmate.
  • Allow visitors who do not want to remove prohibited menstrual products the option of a no-contact visit with an inmate.

Panel OKs Qualifying Drug Offenders for Food Stamps

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A legislative subcommittee voted 6-4 Tuesday in favor of a bill that would make food stamps available to people convicted of drug-related felonies.

The panel recommended that the full House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee approve House Bill 1891, which would expand eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, to any drug offender.

“We are a nation of second chances,” said Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth, who sponsored the bill. “This is an issue we need to think about … repealing the lifetime ban on food stamps.”

Under current law, only people who are convicted of drug possession felonies can be eligible for food stamps and temporary assistance, if they comply with the court and complete a substance abuse treatment program.

James said the legislation serves as a “safety net for felons who have done their time, paid their prices.”

In 2018, more than 4,000 SNAP applicants were denied food stamps because of drug-related charges, according to the bill’s impact statement. If passed, HB 1891 would provide SNAP to more than 600 new Virginians who do not reside in SNAP homes and are not currently eligible for SNAP because of drug-related crimes.

Eighteen states have dropped the restrictions prohibiting drug offenders from receiving SNAP, and 26 states — including Virginia — have reduced prohibitions by offering benefits if specific requirements are met. Virginia requires compliance with criminal court and Department of Social Services obligations, and the completion or active engagement in a substance abuse treatment program. Only three states implement a full lifetime ban on SNAP for drug offenders, James said.

“I could have a felony as serious as homicide and be eligible for SNAP benefits,” said Pamela Little-Hill, director of social services for the city of Portsmouth. “There is something incredibly wrong with that.”

James’ proposal would modify Virginia law to include any drug-related felonies, not just those related to possession. It also sought to remove the additional requirements for drug offenders to meet — court compliance and drug rehabilitation — in order to be eligible. But the subcommittee amended the bill to keep the requirements.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, sponsored legislation similar to James’ food stamp bill. HB 2397 would prohibit denying Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, to individuals who have been convicted for drug-related felonies as well. The subcommittee voted 4-5 to reject Lopez’s legislation.

“Parents re-entering their communities after incarceration routinely require public benefits to reunite their families, pay rents and buy food, clothing and other necessities,” Lopez said. “Denying access to such families as they attempt to rebuild their lives is counterproductive. Family members who are innocent of any wrongdoing are being punished for the crime of a parent.”

TANF is a federal welfare program that provides monthly cash assistance to families to help meet basic needs. Lopez’s TANF bill would assist more than 100 families across the commonwealth, he said, and provide approximately $79 a month to each household.

“Through this process, we’re going to be helping families, helping stabilize communities,” Lopez said.

Both HB 1891 and 2397 focus on re-incorporating drug offenders into society and reducing recidivism, or offenders relapsing into a continuous cycle of crime.

“These bills seek successful re-entry,” said Salaam Bhatti, attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “Studies show that 91 percent of people who are leaving prison don’t have access to food. This will help. Eligibility for these programs significantly decreases recidivism.”

The House Health, Welfare and Institutions committee might consider HB 1891 when it meets Thursday.

How they voted

Here is how the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted on HB 1891 (Food stamps; eligibility, drug-related felonies.)

01/22/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (6-Y, 4-N)

YEAS — Stolle, Edmunds, Hope, Aird, Rasoul, Rodman — 6.

NAYS — Bell, Robert B., Pogge, Hodges, Head — 4.

Here is how the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted on HB 2397 (TANF; eligibility, drug-related felonies.)

01/22/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (4-Y, 6-N)

YEAS — Hope, Aird, Rasoul, Rodman — 4.

NAYS — Bell, Robert B., Pogge, Stolle, Hodges, Edmunds, Head — 6.

Legislators Introduce Journalist Protections

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Two delegates, both former journalists, introduced legislation Monday to protect student journalists from censorship and shield reporters from having to disclose confidential sources.

Dels. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Danica Roem, D-Prince William, urged the General Assembly to pass such legislation.

“Journalism matters. Facts matter,” Roem said. “We have to get this right.”

Sponsored by Roem, House Bill 2250 — introduced for the second year in a row — would protect members of the press from being forced by courts to reveal the identity of anonymous sources.

“The whole point of the shield law is to protect reporters from being jailed for protecting confidential sources,” said Roem, a former reporter with The Prince William Times.

In 1990, Roem’s former editor Brian Karem served jail time  for withholding the names of anonymous sources while reporting in Texas.

“He did it to protect his sources’ confidentiality,” Roem said, “and to keep his word.”

Virginia is one of 10 states that does not implement shield protections for members of the press; Roem also pointed out that a federal shield law does not exist. HB 2250 includes a clause requiring sources to be revealed when there is an “imminent threat of bodily harm,” Roem said.

In addition to shield laws, Hurst said it’s urgent the legislature also pass HB 2382, which he is sponsoring. The bill would safeguard the work of student journalists from administrative censorship.

If the bill passes, Virginia would join 14 other states in providing protections for high school or college students. Half of the states with current protections for student journalists passed legislation in the last four years.

“Thorough and vetted articles and news stories in student media shouldn’t be subject to unnecessary censorship by administrators,” Hurst said.

Hurst has advocated for measures close to his heart since election to office in 2017. A former anchor and reporter for WDBJ 7 news in Roanoke, Hurst was dating Alison Parker, a fellow WDBJ reporter who was fatally shot on live TV in 2015, along with photojournalist Adam Ward.

The bill would create the freedom for student journalists to publish what they please without fear of administrative retaliation.The institution would be allowed to interfere only if  content violates federal or state law, invades privacy unjustifiably, creates clear danger or includes defamatory speech.

While the current legislation focuses on implementing protections for student reporters in public schools and universities, Hurst said he wants the protections to eventually encompass private institutions. He said the legislation was “something that would, as fast as possible, put protections in place for student journalists at our public schools, our public colleges and universities.”

These pieces of legislation come at a time when professional journalists are increasingly targets of violence. A 2018 report by Reporters Without Borders — a nongovernmental organization that promotes journalistic free speech worldwide — found nearly 350 journalists were detained, 80 killed and 60 held hostage by November. More than 250 reporters globally were jailed in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Hundreds March For Women and Minority Rights in Richmond

By Saffeya Ahmed and Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Hundreds of social justice advocates, community members and students marched for women’s rights Saturday in Richmond.

The two-mile reprise of the 2017 Women’s March began at 9 a.m. at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center as participants holding brightly decorated signs walked toward the intersection of West Broad Street and North Boulevard.

“What do want? Equal rights. When do we want them? Now,” demonstrators chanted in support of both women and minority rights.

Demonstrators made their way back to the Arthur Ashe Center around 10:30 a.m. for an expo where speakers urged reform, marchers danced to empowering music and dozens of vendors sold handmade products and spread awareness about social justice movements.

“I often times get asked … where is this surge of energy from women coming from?” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who spoke at the expo. “I like to tell them, it’s always been in us.”

Carroll Foy sponsored legislation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — which prohibits sex-based discrimination — in efforts to make Virginia the 38th and final state necessary to include the ERA in the U.S. Constitution.

“We now know we must have a seat at the table,” Carroll Foy said. “We have to be where the decisions are being made and where the laws are being written.”

After marching to and from the Arthur Ashe Center, participants gathered to hear social justice advocates and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

“Every issue is a woman’s issue,” McClellan said. “We’ve had a long, complicated history. And now we fight and we march today to make sure our voices are heard.”

Spanberger thanked the work of “strong women” who helped send a total of 126 women to Congress during the 2018 midterms.

“For anyone who needs something to show their daughters or young people or anyone else,” Spanberger said, “look at who’s in Congress. Look at what we have happening in Congress.”

Spanberger — who beat Republican Rep. Dave Brat in one of Virginia’s most hotly contested races of the 2018 midterm elections — represents Virginia’s 7th District in the most diverse Congress to step foot in Washington.

“We have women from all over the country,” Spanberger said. “We have our first Muslim women. Our first Native American women in Congress. We have our youngest woman ever in Congress.”

Nearly a quarter of the 116th Congress is made up of women, the most in U.S. history, according to Pew Research.

“I love seeing women in power,” said 11-year-old Natalie Rodriguez, who participated in the march, “because I know that when my grandma was growing up, it wasn’t like that.”

Several speakers also addressed immigrant rights. Some expressed frustration with the now-longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. The U.S. entered the shutdown Dec. 22, 2018, stemming from a deadlock over President Donald Trump’s $5 billion funding request for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. 
“By shutting down the government, that’s sort of like saying, ‘I’m not going to reopen until you give me my wall,’” said march organizer and local activist Seema Sked. “It’s very childish.”

As a Muslim woman, Sked focuses her advocacy efforts toward fighting Trump’s travel ban, fighting Islamophobia and creating equity for immigrants. She recently traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to help asylum seekers with the interview process.

“Just to see the conditions that folks are in, and to see the children, and how everyone’s so desperate to find a better life and a safe place,” Sked said, “that’s really, really important to me because I look at that and think that could be me.”

Several marchers supported immigrant rights similar to Sked, holding up signs that read “immigrants are not enemies” and “make America kind again.”

This is the second year that Women’s March RVA has held an event after having been inspired by the National Women’s March held annually in Washington. The march took place a week earlier than the organization’s sister marches, giving Richmond residents the opportunity to partake in one or both events.

The National Women’s March will take place in Washington at 10 a.m. next Saturday.

Legislators Outline Plans for Expanding Mental Health Services

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Legislators proposed recommendations Tuesday to expand Virginia’s mental health services — including “right-sizing” the state hospital system, altering law enforcement training procedures and providing correctional facilities access to health records.

A General Assembly subcommittee will push legislation requiring the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to “right-size” the state hospital system by ensuring the appropriate number, capacity and locations of state hospitals. The legislation seeks to improve the current state hospital model and increase access to hospital beds across Virginia.

As of 2017, Virginia had less than 1,500 hospital beds spread across nine state mental health hospitals, according to DBHDS. The hospitals also consistently operate at peak occupancy, which is nearly 15 percent above the 85 percent occupancy rate considered safe for both patients and staff, according to the same report. 

“Access remains an issue,” said Paula Margolis, senior health policy analyst for the Joint Commission on Health Care, a research group created by the General Assembly. “Temporary detention order process remains an issue, with how there’s not enough hospital beds for people. [The legislative panel is] restructuring the system so that people are better served.”

The Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Commonwealth in the 21st Century focuses on the delivery of all mental health services — short-term, long-term and emergency — to all Virginians.

“There’s somewhat of a stigma built up around mental health that prevents people from getting care,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of the subcommittee. “It’s important that mental health issues [are] given the same dignity as physical health issues.”

Deeds has a personal connection to the issue. In 2013, Deeds took his son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, but the young man was  released because no psychiatric beds were available. Less than 24 hours later, Gus stabbed his father multiple times and then committed suicide. Deeds later said the system failed his son.

Last year, Deeds sponsored legislation that requires schools to teach about the importance of  mental health in ninth and 10th grades.

During the legislative session that begins Wednesday, the subcommittee will seek approval of legislation that updates training standards for law enforcement personnel to include mental health sensitivity and awareness.

From 2012-17, Virginia saw an 18 percent increase in the number of people with mental illnesses imprisoned in local jails, according to a 2017 report by the Virginia Compensation Board. The inclusion of sensitivity and awareness training is specifically focused on people experiencing behavioral health issues or substance abuse crises.

“We’ve got to build a system of care,” Deeds said, “so that people no matter where they are in Virginia have access to the services they need.”

The subcommittee also hopes to amend state law so that correctional facilities can obtain patient mental health records when needed without requiring consent.

Other legislative recommendations for 2019 include:

  • Expand “telehealth” — ways of providing health care via technology

  • Support the University of Virginia in developing a clinical fellowship in telepsychiatry

  • Ask the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to explore treatment options for people in mental health crisis who have complex medical needs

  • Fund a pilot program for a psychiatric emergency center  

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