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Youngkin administration now requires felons to apply to get their voting rights back

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In a shift from Virginia’s last three governors, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is requiring people with felony convictions to proactively apply to regain their voting rights upon release from prison and is not automatically restoring rights for any group of offenders.

In a letter sent to a Democratic state senator this week in response to questions about an apparent slowdown in the pace of rights restoration grants after Youngkin took office, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James said the administration’s policy is to give former inmates an application upon release that explains how they can ask for their civil rights back.

“Our website was updated to include that application are considered individually and not granted on an automatic basis,” Coles James, whose office oversees rights restoration, wrote Wednesday to Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, who chairs the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

The Virginia Constitution gives governors broad authority to set their own policies in granting or rejecting rights restoration requests. On Thursday, the Youngkin administration would not elaborate on the governor’s specific criteria to make those decisions.

Spruill promised to “fight back against the rollback of these rights.”

“Once you have served your time, your rights should be restored for non-violent felons. Period,” Spruill said in a written statement. “I will fight against this secret process and secret set of rules that the governor is using to decide who can be denied the right to vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which supports a less strict rights restoration system, said the Youngkin administration “appears content to leave Virginians in the dark.”

“The Youngkin administration’s failure to disclose the criteria by which it will review incarcerated people’s applications for the restoration of their voting rights is hugely concerning,” said ACLU of Virginia Policy Director Ashna Khanna.

Virginia is one of just a few states with a constitutional rule that automatically disenfranchises people with felony convictions unless a governor chooses to restore their rights.

Youngkin restored rights to more than 4,300 Virginians in his first year in office, according to an annual report on criminal justice clemency actions. That’s roughly in line with how many rights restorations former  Democratic Govs. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner granted in their entire four-year terms, but it puts Youngkin well behind the pace set by more recent Democratic Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam. McAuliffe restored rights to more than 173,000 people. Northam granted more than 126,000 rights restorations. Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who ramped up rights restorations while he was in office, approved more than 8,000.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the governor “firmly believes in the importance of second chances for Virginians who have made mistakes but are working to move forward as active members of our citizenry.”

“The Constitution places the responsibility to consider Virginians for restoration in the hands of the Governor alone, and he does not take this lightly,” Porter said. “Restoration of rights are assessed on an individual basis according to the law and take into consideration the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our community and families.”

In recent years, there has appeared to be a growing bipartisan consensus that a fundamental issue like voting rights shouldn’t be left to the whims of individual governors.

Democrats have pushed to make the rights restoration process as nearly automatic as legally possible, arguing that everyone who has reentered society deserves a say in the democratic process. Some Republicans, particularly those more open to criminal justice reform, agree the process should be more forgiving. The GOP’s tough-on-crime wing has insisted the loss of civil rights is an appropriate consequence for felony offenses that may or may not bring substantial prison time, and some Republican lawmakers have insisted on having rights restoration rules in place that take into account the severity of someone’s crime and whether they still owe money to the courts or their victim.

The rights restoration form being used by the Youngkin administration specifically asks applicants if they have been convicted of a violent crime or still owe fines, fees or restitution.

In a statement, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said he was “pleased that there is some modicum of scrutiny as to whether someone has fulfilled their obligations to their victims and society.”


The Republican-led House of Delegates has blocked efforts to change the constitution to make the rights restoration process automatic in recent legislative sessions, despite several Republican delegates co-sponsoring the proposal.

Since McDonnell’s term, some former inmates returning to society have automatically gotten their rights back.

In 2013, McDonnell announced he would automatically restore rights to nonviolent felons who had paid off any fees or restitution owed in connection to the crime they committed. In 2016, the Democratic McAuliffe took a dramatic next step, signing an executive order that restored rights to more than 206,000 felons at once, characterizing it as a move to rectify the state’s history of suppressing the Black vote.

McAuliffe’s order applied to an unprecedented number of former inmates regardless of whether they had asked to have their rights restored. Its broad scope led to data processing errors that resulted in erroneous rights restorations to some people still incarcerated for serious offenses, including 132 sex offenders who had finished their criminal sentences but were still civilly confined because authorities had deemed them a danger to the public.

Northam largely continued the McAuliffe-era policy and took additional steps to streamline the process.

The legality of automatic restoration policies was at the heart of a high-profile court battle between Republican leaders in 2016.

After McAuliffe’s executive order, former House Speaker Bill Howell filed a lawsuit alleging the governor had overstepped the limits of his power. In a 4-3 ruling, a majority of Supreme Court of Virginia justices agreed, saying McAuliffe’s approach was so broad it had effectively nullified a constitutional rule.

The Supreme Court found that governors must conduct an individualized review of each person eligible for rights restoration, a finding Coles James referenced in her letter to Spruill.

“Every applicant is different,” Coles James wrote.

Voting rights have been the primary focus in debates about Virginia’s rights restoration process, but other rights are also involved. People who have had their rights restored also regain the ability to run for public office, serve on juries and act as a notary public. A certificate of restoration also enables formerly incarcerated people to ask a court to restore their gun rights.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin Announces Plan for Millions in Early Childhood and Child Care Spending

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With the last pandemic-era expansions of federal child care aid to states set to end next year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin is proposing to put $448 million into the commonwealth’s early learning and child care system in each of the next two years.

“The reality is that in March 2024, without significant reforms to improve this long-term viability of our child care programs, we would otherwise see children simply being kicked out of these most important collaborations that enable families to realize their dreams, and so we can’t leave families, parents and their children without options,” said Youngkin at a press conference for his “Building Blocks for Virginia Families” initiative Thursday.

The funding will be part of Youngkin’s proposal for the state budget over the next two years, which he is scheduled to present to lawmakers on Dec. 20. The General Assembly, which Democrats will narrowly control when the session begins this January, will use that proposal as the jumping-off point for their own spending plan.

While the administration has not yet provided a detailed breakdown of how the $448 million would be spent, a document provided to reporters includes a list of priorities. They include the desire to “ensure every low-income working family that currently receives public support continues to have access to early childhood and afterschool programs,” “accelerate parent choice, from home-care providers and public school preschools to community co-ops and private day centers,” and require all early childhood programs to “annually measure and report unmet parental demand and preference.”

A few priorities have dollar figures attached: The proposed investment includes $25 million to develop public-private partnerships in areas with childcare shortages, $10 million in educator incentives, and $1 million to launch early learning and childcare accounts on a digital wallet platform for families with children under five. Families can use the wallets to accept funds from such groups as employers, local governments, and family members.

Additionally, the plan calls for streamlining teacher licensure requirements and “rightsizing” student-teacher ratios.

“This is about an opportunity for success,” Youngkin said, “and it starts with success for families.”

Kathy Glazer, president of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, called the proposal “a remarkable commitment to Virginia’s children and families.”

“By sustaining access to quality, affordable early childhood care and education services, these investments will help unlock the potential of all children and keep Virginia on the path to economic success,” she said.

An October report by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found approximately 1.1 million children in Virginia aged 12 and younger need child care, and the majority of Virginia families find care to be unaffordable.

State report finds child care is unaffordable for most Va. families with young kids

The situation is set to worsen. Over the past three years, Virginia has used federal relief funds to help meet child care demand. However, the commonwealth is in jeopardy of being unable to support services when American Rescue Plan Act child care funds expire at the end of the federal fiscal year 2024. JLARC has estimated that 25,000 Virginia children could lose their childcare slots as a result of the end of pandemic childcare subsidies.

As other pandemic relief programs wind down, legislative staffers have told lawmakers that signs are increasingly pointing to the U.S. entering a slowdown or mild recession next year as high revenues over the past few years begin running dry.

The governor has asked state agencies to begin looking at cuts for the July 1, 2024, to June 30, 2026 budget, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported.

Child care advocacy groups on Thursday said they hope lawmakers will see the need to keep parents and providers afloat with stable funding and investments. Allison Gilbreath, senior director of policy and programs for Voices for Virginia’s Children, said the proposed investments are “desperately needed.”

“As a mom, my career begins and ends with access to early childhood that is affordable and accessible for my family,” she said. “So it’s going to be so meaningful for families across the commonwealth.”

Costs

Child care is unaffordable for most Virginians, especially for low-income families, JLARC found in its recent study.


The October report showed child care is unaffordable for 85% of Virginia’s families with infants, 82% with toddlers, and 74% with preschoolers.

According to the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, the average annual cost of child care currently is more than $10,000 for one child, and in some states, it’s as much as $15,000 to $20,000.

JLARC’s estimates put the cost of full-time formal child care in Virginia at between $100 and $440 per week per child, or $5,200 to $22,880 annually. Many childcare providers charge fees on top of base tuition rates, which further increase the cost.

Low-income families have relied heavily on Virginia’s Child Care Subsidy Program, which uses federal and state funds to reimburse providers for care services. Last year, the commonwealth received a boost of federal funds for the subsidy program, which JLARC said led to an increase in the number of families receiving subsidized child care and a reduction in copayments for families. Still, demand for subsidy slots remained.

Forty-two percent of the state’s licensed child care providers are subsidy vendors or providers that service children in the program, JLARC reported.

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia Proposes Adding 12 Plants, Including Kudzu, to Noxious Weeds List

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Virginia is considering adding 12 more plants to its noxious weeds list, a compilation of species that are banned from use in the state because of the damage they provide to ecosystems.

On Thursday, the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services held a public hearing on the proposed additions. No one spoke during it, but one comment was submitted via the state’s online regulatory Town Hall website from Chesapeake resident Rogard Ross, who said he “strongly agrees” with the additions.

“You should also add English Ivy, Japanese Stilt Grass, and Linden Viburnum,” wrote Ross.  “These are all terribly invasive plants in our local parks in Chesapeake, Virginia.”

Invasive plants have spread all over Virginia. Some groups say that needs to stop.

The public comment period is scheduled to end Friday, Dec. 8.

The plants proposed to be added to the list are:

  • Two-horned trapa
  • Garlic mustard
  • Chinese yam
  • Autumn olive
  • Lesser celandine
  • Bicolor lespedeza
  • Amur honeysuckle.
  • Japanese honeysuckle
  • Common reed
  • Kudzu
  • Japanese knotweed
  • Siberian elm

Two-horned trapa would be added as a “tier 2” noxious weed, a classification given to plants that can be suppressed or eradicated. The rest would be added as tier 3 noxious weeds, those that experts say can’t reasonably be wiped out.

A house in Dickenson County covered in Kudzu. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia also compiles an invasive plant species list that is used for informational purposes. There’s no restrictions for the vast majority of plants on that list if they are deemed “commercially viable.” But when the negative ecological impacts of an invasive plant are deemed to outweigh its economic benefits, officials can place it on the noxious weed list.

The state began the process of considering the latest additions in 2021. Larry Nichols, director of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Consumer Protection, said the species were recommended by the state Noxious Weeds Advisory Committee.

The 12 plants “are highly adaptable to their environment, are copious seed producers, and can overwhelm native plant species through rapid growth and spread, resulting in the displacement of the native, desirable plant species,” Nichols said. “Controlling these plants is costly and long term once they become established.”

Following the public comment period, the Board will vote on the regulation, and pending approval, it will continue through the review process.

This article was updated with information on the next steps for the regulation to be enacted.

 

by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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This Land is Our Land: States Crack Down on Foreign-Owned Farm Fields

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Andy Gipson gets concerned even when American allies such as the Netherlands and Germany invest in large swaths of Mississippi’s farmland.

“It just bothers me at a gut level,” he said.

For Gipson, Mississippi’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce, the growing trend of foreign ownership could threaten what he views as the state’s most valuable asset: the land that grows its forests, rice, and cotton.

“It is our ability as a country, as a state to produce our own food, our own fiber, and our own shelter,” he told Stateline. “And I think every acre that’s sold to anybody outside of this country is one less acre that we have to rely on for our own self-interest, our own national food security.”

Gipson has spent recent months studying the growing amount of his state’s farmland being bought up by foreign interests. He chaired a study committee that just issued a 363-page report on the issue requested by the legislature after a lawmaker had offered a bill to ban foreign purchases completely.

Since its constitution was approved in 1890, the state has had provisions restricting land ownership by “nonresident aliens,” the report noted. But the committee concluded current state law “lacks a clear, workable enforcement mechanism.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that foreign interests held some 757,000 acres of Mississippi’s agricultural land, about 2.5% of the total. Gipson hopes the Republican-led legislature will stiffen the law in the upcoming session.

“I think the time is going to be right in 2024 for the legislature to tighten these laws up,” he said.

If the legislature acts, Mississippi will join a growing group of states seeking to ban or further restrict foreign ownership of farmland. Lawmakers are targeting nations considered hostile to U.S. interests, such as China and Russia, and looking for new enforcement measures. Many see Arkansas as leading the latter push; officials there invoked a new law in October that bans certain foreign owners and ordered a Chinese seed company to divest its land.

Nearly half the states have some restrictions on the books, some dating back to the 1700s.

While the debate is as old as the nation itself, the issue has been reinvigorated in recent years after Chinese firms purchased land near military installments in North Dakota and in Texas, said Micah Brown, an attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas who tracks the issue.

Brown said lawmakers in 36 states proposed some sort of legislation on the issue this year, ranging from caps to bans to targets on certain countries, with measures passing in about a dozen of them. More bills are expected in upcoming sessions.

Some lawmakers and experts warn that such laws could go too far, making it difficult for some farmers to sell their land, discouraging economic development, or even leading to discrimination against certain groups of people, such as Asian Americans.

Foreign ownership of U.S. farmland probed at U.S. Senate hearing

Foreigners held an interest in about 40 million acres of U.S. agricultural land at the end of 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Canadian investors own the largest share of that acreage, followed by investors from the United Kingdom and Europe. Foreign ownership represents only about 3.1% of all privately held U.S. agricultural land. But the number is quickly rising: Foreign ownership has increased more than 50% in the past decade, Brown said.

But USDA data shows Chinese ownership is still relatively rare: Chinese interests own less than 1% of the nation’s foreign-held agricultural acreage.

Federal law currently does not regulate foreign ownership of land beyond requiring foreign buyers to register with the USDA. But there is bipartisan interest in Congress in tighter restrictions and reporting on foreign ownership.

At the state level, much of the legislation has been proposed by Republicans, though Brown said it’s largely enjoyed bipartisan support — particularly when bills target ownership by nations considered hostile to American interests.

Front Royal Virginia

“It’d be pretty difficult for someone to step out and say, ‘Hey, I don’t think we should restrict North Korea.’ … That’s kind of where some of the politics come into this. It looks like you’re achieving something. There’s been a lot of bipartisan support on these efforts.”

Arkansas leads on enforcement

In October, Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders invoked the war between Israel and Hamas as she announced her state was taking its first action against foreign ownership of agricultural land.

Sanders described America’s “enemies,” naming not just Hamas, but also China, Iran, and Russia as “on the march.”

“Yet for too long in the name of tolerance we’ve let these dangerous governments infiltrate our country,” she said. “Arkansas will tolerate them no longer.”

The state ordered seed and pesticide maker Syngenta to sell 160 acres of land it owns in Northeast Arkansas and uses for research. Legislation passed during the 2023 session barred certain foreign countries from owning farmland and enabled the state to seek judicial foreclosure for those found in violation. The attorney general’s office said it was to date the only known property covered by the new law.

China Owns Little US Farmland, But Many Lawmakers Are Worried

Syngenta, which was given two years to sell its property, did not respond to a Stateline request for comment. The company previously criticized the Arkansas action as “shortsighted.”

Last month, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, announced that Syngenta had paid a $280,000 civil penalty for failing to register with the state as required under legislation passed in 2021.

“This serves as a warning to all other Chinese state-owned companies operating in Arkansas — I am investigating these types of properties throughout the state and will exercise all powers afforded to my office under the law,” he said in a statement last month. 

Based in Switzerland, Syngenta was bought by ChemChina, a state-owned entity, in 2017.

Republican state Sen. Blake Johnson said he was unaware of Syngenta’s acquisition when he sponsored both pieces of legislation. He said the laws were broadly aimed at protecting national security.

“Our food safety is paramount to the national defense, in my opinion: feeding, clothing ourselves and our military if need be in the future,” he said. “That can be done by our own land. We don’t need to outsource that to our enemies.”

Johnson said he was careful to target the legislation at unfriendly nations. It applies to the same countries named in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, federal rules that restrict weapons from certain adversarial nations. He noted that friendly nations are exempt: Canada, for instance, owns large swaths of timberland in southern Arkansas.

“That’s not a problem under this law,” he said.

The Arkansas action was closely watched by officials in neighboring Mississippi.

“To date, Arkansas is the only state that has actually enforced a law like this,” said Gipson, the Mississippi agriculture commissioner. “I like the way they did it.”

But he said there are plenty of complications.

Mississippi doesn’t want to hinder important agricultural research, Gipson said. Nor does it want to dissuade investments such as Japanese-based Nissan’s giant assembly plant in Canton.

“Some of the states have had unintended consequences, and we don’t want to have those, obviously,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Bill Pigott, who also served on the study committee, said he’s working on legislation he thinks will pass in 2024.

A farmer who raises peanuts, corn, and cattle, Pigott said he has not heard from other farmers about the issue, though he said many constituents are concerned.

“People who listen to the news and watch TV — they seem to be more concerned about it than actually the farmers themselves,” he said. “I do get people ask if we are doing anything.”

Pigott said the legislation will aim to target hostile nations such as China and Russia. Currently, investors from the Netherlands are the largest foreign owners in Mississippi, followed by Germany.

“Almost nobody has any concern with that,” he said. “It is the hostile nations, and No. 1 on that list is China.”

Striking a balance

In opening a U.S. Senate hearing in September, Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow acknowledged that the nation’s food system is an integral component of national security.

With more foreign entities buying up land, she said, the issue deserves scrutiny. But she offered a warning:

“We must also be cautious of our history of barring immigrants from owning land in our country and ensure efforts to protect our national and economic security do not encourage discrimination,” she said.

During hearings on foreign-owned agricultural land in Topeka, Kansas, state Rep. Rui Xi, a Democrat and the only Chinese American in the state House, in September warned about rhetoric casting suspicion on Asian Americans such as grad students lawfully admitted to the United States.

“If we want to take a look at foreign investment in ag land and it’s narrow, that’s great,” Xi said. “If you try to cast a shadow and it continues to cast suspicion on people who are here innocently, who are just trying to learn, who are trying to attend our universities, I think that’s where we really, really need to urge caution.”

While more American agricultural land is being bought up by foreign interests, it’s generally not governments that own it, said David Ortega, a food economist at Michigan State University. Syngenta garnered plenty of attention in Arkansas, but it’s more common for foreign individuals and firms to buy land as investments, he said.

So far, Ortega said, there’s no evidence that foreign purchases have raised ag prices or pose any threat to American food security.

Ortega said policymakers should consider carefully the potential effects of new laws on the broader agricultural economy. China, for instance, is often targeted by legislators. But it’s also the largest buyer of American agricultural exports and could retaliate against American farmers.

“It’s far easier for China to find a new source to buy [from] than it is for us to find new export markets,” he said in an interview.

Ortega said there are specific, local concerns about foreign ownership worth addressing. And while there are many good-faith debates occurring, he does worry that the conversation could lead to discrimination against groups such as Chinese Americans.

Youngkin halted Ford battery plant efforts in Virginia over concerns about China

“I don’t think that the root cause of lawmakers’ concerns over this issue is rooted in xenophobia,” he said. “But I am worried that the way this issue is talked about can lead to xenophobia and those types of issues. And that’s why I and others are urging caution.”

Since Congress has not enacted any legislation, state lawmakers say they are willing to act.

“While I would prefer we send one message from our Congress to address this issue, that’s beyond the scope of what I can do,” said Georgia state Rep. Clay Pirkle, a Republican. “What I can do is formulate a state response to this issue.”

Pirkle grows cotton, peanuts, rice, and butterbeans on about 1,000 acres in southern Georgia. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation in Atlanta that would prevent nonresident aliens from purchasing farmland near military bases if they were from nations deemed adversarial by the U.S. Department of Commerce — a list that currently includes China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The bill didn’t progress, but Pirkle plans to pursue it again next session.

He said crafting legislation on the matter is complicated because he does not want Georgia to dissuade purchases from people who have fled other countries for the United States.

“I really made every effort to avoid unintentional consequences of folks from these countries that have come to the United States because they really desire liberty and freedom,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure that I did not unduly burden them.”

But Pirkle believes something needs to be done. American agricultural land is not a renewable resource. Developers continue to encroach on farmland for the development of new housing and industry.

“The land that we have that we grow crops on to feed the world is the land that we have in ag production,” he said. “We’re not making any more, and it is a scarce resource.”

 

by Kevin Hardy, Virginia Mercury


Stateline is a sister publication of the Virginia Mercury within States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pedestrian-Involved Crashes, Cyclist Fatalities Increase From Last Year

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RICHMOND, Va. – Alcohol, distraction, or speeding were the most deadly factors for pedestrians and cyclists in Virginia for at least the past three years.

Those factors contributed to nearly 3 in 4 pedestrian deaths and 2 in 3 cyclist deaths between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30.

Crash statistics were initially trending down but rose enough in the past month that this year has not been an improvement. Total pedestrian-involved crashes are up this year at 1,487, while cyclist-involved crashes remain slightly down at 529. Virginia traffic data is collected using the Traffic Records Electronic Data System.

State data shows pedestrian deaths this year, through November, decreased from 172 to 117, but cyclist deaths have increased.

Carla “Jonah” Holland was one of 11 cyclists killed in Virginia in 2022. She and Natalie Rainer were hit by an intoxicated driver while biking on a rural road in Henrico County. The driver was 18 at the time and was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“The cost ends up being so much greater than just one person,” Rainer said. “In my story, it’s Jonah’s life, but it’s also [the driver’s] life. His life is altered as well.”

Rainer woke up four days after the accident to discover her friend was gone. Even as she heals and gets back on a bike, the scars remain – on her chest, arms, abdomen, legs, and pelvis.

“My life has been touched, but I will still have the privilege to live out my life in a full manner,” Rainer said.

The cost goes beyond just the loss of a loved one – there is a loss of safety and peace in the community, she said.

“It creates an atmosphere where people do not feel safe to exist in space and that is unacceptable,” Rainer said. “Maybe people are willing to kind of brush the issue to the side because it doesn’t personally affect them.”

Across the nation: How does Virginia compare?

Pedestrian fatalities increased in Virginia between 2021-2022. It was the fifth highest percentage increase in the nation, according to data from the national Governors Highway Safety Association.

Overall, Virginia ranked 24th in total pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people last year.

Drivers nationwide hit and killed just over 7,500 pedestrians in 2022 – the highest since 1981, according to GHSA data. Unreported Oklahoma data could make the toll higher.

This means that, on average, about 20 people a day are struck and killed on American roads.

Pedestrian fatalities in Virginia may be down this year, but total injuries are higher, with one month still left to go. Conversely, cyclists are seeing less injuries and more deaths as a result of these crashes.


 

 

Infrastructures: Progress in Alexandria

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, stated in an email that these “preventable tragedies” result from a number of factors, such as impaired driving or road design. He added that while legislation such as his “hands free” law has helped, the complicated issue needs further investment.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” said Alex Carroll of Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

Carroll manages the Complete Streets program for Alexandria. The program aims to make it safer to work and travel in the region.

Infrastructural needs are a large piece of the puzzle, according to Carroll.

“There are probably very few crashes where you can say there was nothing about the infrastructure here that could have prevented this,” Carroll said.

A recent five-year analysis found that 70% of fatal and severe crashes in Alexandria occurred on 10% of the city’s streets. This data allows programs like Complete Streets to focus where change is needed most, Carroll said.

Localities need money and resources to implement better infrastructure. However, low-cost starting options are available, which Carroll said can provide “90% of the benefit at 10% of the cost.”

Options include giving pedestrians more time to cross at intersections, adding “no right turn on red” signs and lowering speed limits, among others. Reducing speed limits is often controversial, but even small decreases in speed have produced positive results in Alexandria, Carroll said.

A more expensive option is something called a “road diet,” when travel lanes are removed and replaced with measures such as crosswalks or bike lanes to reduce driver speed and traffic. It has helped in places where crossing pedestrians felt like they were in the video game “Frogger,” Carroll said.

Several Virginia localities, including Alexandria, adopted Vision Zero – an international design philosophy that began in Sweden in the 1990s. Its central goal is to reduce traffic fatalities to zero through the belief that pedestrian deaths are preventable.

“We can’t accept the status quo of people continuing to die and be severely maimed on our streets,” Carroll said.

Vision Zero work is like “trying to turn a ship around,” Carroll said – results are not always immediately apparent. While the goal is rather ambitious, she says it’s worth the effort.

“It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, those numbers are people,” Carroll said.

 

Traffic enforcement and humanizing the statistics

Lt. Robert Netherland of Henrico Police’s Traffic Enforcement Unit knows how it feels to receive a death notification.

His sister was a University of Virginia student when she was hit and killed by a drunk driver.

“I remember like it was yesterday– and we're talking back in the early 1980s,” Netherland said.

Death notifications are a part of the job, and his experiences allow him to empathize with the over 100 families he’s had to contact.

A number of factors, from impairment to distraction to visibility, contribute to pedestrian and cyclist incidents, according to Netherland. Legislative changes like the “hands-free” law have had reasonable success, but others have made his job a bit more difficult, he said.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, patroned a 2020 bill that made several changes to traffic enforcement law when it passed, including a shift in how jaywalking can be penalized. Virginia law now prevents officers from stopping a pedestrian solely because they are jaywalking.

“People just kind of walk where they want to,” Netherland said, and added it has contributed to an increase in pedestrian fatalities.

Netherland said it decreases the chance of a crash if pedestrians cross at designated intersections. Pedestrians and cyclists are less likely to be seriously injured because vehicles typically slow down at intersections.

Pedestrians do not hold all of the responsibility, Netherland said. All parties sharing the roadways need to increase their awareness, remove distractions, and slow down.

Carroll agreed that “victim-blaming” language does not help and emphasized that Vision Zero’s philosophy assumes that people will make mistakes – such as crossing where they shouldn’t.

“If you rely on people to not make mistakes in order to improve your safety goals, you’re never gonna get there,” Carroll said.

Harsher penalties and more direct messaging could push through the “numbness” and encourage all travelers to be safer, Netherland said.

VCU Police began efforts to increase campus traffic enforcement following the January crash that killed university student Mahrokh Khan while she crossed the street. This initiative resulted in over 800 traffic citations between February and May, according to data provided by VCU Police.

Virginia State Police recently launched Operation DISS-rupt, a campaign to target unsafe and distracted drivers. Interstate 64 enforcement on Oct. 19 and 20 resulted in 362 speeding violations, according to data provided by VSP. Additionally, there were 200 instances of reckless driving and 75 violations of the “hands-free” law.

Deaths decreased over Virginia’s Thanksgiving holiday compared to last year, according to VSP. The number of driving under the influence arrests were about the same, though reckless driving and speeding citations were up.

Education and rejecting ‘status quo’

The acceptance of these fatal and severe crashes as “the cost of doing business” cannot be allowed, said John Saunders, director of highway safety for Virginia DMV.

“If we had as many people die in airplane crashes as we see dying on our highways, no one would fly,” Saunders said.

According to Saunders, the DMV targets its messaging using crash and law enforcement data. It distributes safety messages about crossing streets, maintaining visibility, and practicing safe driving habits through many partners.

Drivers’ tests ask applicants how to share the road safely, but the DMV does not design test questions. The Virginia Department of Education does, according to Saunders. The VDOE did not respond to a request for a statement.

He said that drivers often only take one test to get a license, so continued education is important.

“It’s sometimes awhile since folks have really taken a close look at pedestrians, and being a pedestrian, and how dangerous that is,” Saunders said.

He said it would take a continued beating of the drum to raise awareness and improve safety.

“We have a responsibility, especially as drivers, to make every effort to do all that we can to ensure that everyone gets home safely each and every day,” Saunders said.

Ending traffic violence as a community

These statistics represent neighbors, family, and friends.

“Ultimately, we can't separate cycling incidents from pedestrian incidents, and even other drivers being involved in crashes,” Rainer said. “We're talking about traffic violence, which is on the rise.”

Local governments have started to tackle the problem, but it won’t help unless people take accountability, she said, from putting down cell phones to taking the foot off the gas.

“We've got to start to find ways of helping people to understand that we are connected,” Rainer said. “When you see a cyclist on a bike on the road, they're not an obstacle in your way, right? That's a human being … we need to look at each other as valuable.”

 

By Ryan Nadeau/Capital News Service
Video by Reiley Matthews/VCU InSight


VCU InSight reporter Reiley Matthews contributed to this article. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.

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State News

Virginia’s Thanksgiving Roads: Safer This Year

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Dramatic Drop in Fatal Traffic Crashes Over Thanksgiving 2023.

In a remarkable turn of events, Virginia has seen a significant decrease in traffic-related fatalities during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2023. Compared to the previous year, the state experienced a 53% reduction in fatal traffic crashes, a promising indicator of improved road safety. This development has brought relief to many and highlights the effectiveness of stringent traffic enforcement and public awareness campaigns.

A Safer Holiday Season

According to preliminary data, only nine people lost their lives in traffic incidents over the five-day holiday period, a stark contrast to the 19 fatalities recorded in 2022. A notable aspect of these tragedies was the absence of seat belts in most cases, underscoring the continued importance of basic safety measures.

Colonel Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of the Virginia State Police, expressed optimism about the reduction in traffic crashes. He emphasized the role of responsible driving in ensuring safety during the holidays and urged Virginians to maintain these habits as the winter season approaches.

Impact of Operation C.A.R.E.

A key element in this year’s traffic safety was Operation C.A.R.E. (Crash Awareness and Reduction Effort), an annual, state-sponsored initiative. During the 2023 Thanksgiving period, state troopers increased their presence and traffic enforcement, resulting in significant law enforcement activity. This included citing 4,520 drivers for speeding, 1,840 for reckless driving and arresting 89 individuals for driving under the influence. Additionally, 427 citations were issued for seat belt violations.

Traffic Statistics: A Positive Trend

The overall number of traffic crashes also saw a decrease, with state troopers responding to 1,359 incidents—a reduction of nearly a hundred compared to 2022. Out of these, 137 crashes resulted in injuries. This decrease is a testament to the heightened enforcement and public awareness efforts.

It’s also noteworthy that the fines collected from these summonses contribute to Virginia’s public welfare, with funds going towards court fees and the state’s Literary Fund, which supports public school construction, technology funding, and teacher retirement.

The 2023 Thanksgiving holiday has positively changed Virginia’s roads, marked by a significant decrease in fatal crashes and overall accidents. This improvement is a result of collective efforts in enforcing traffic laws and promoting road safety. As Virginia moves into the winter holidays, the lessons and successes of this period serve as a blueprint for continued vigilance and responsibility on the roads.

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Abortions Increase in State Since Roe Overturned; Virginia Border City Remains a Refuge 

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RICHMOND, Va. – The twin Bristol cities share a name and a state line, but abortion accessibility changes just over a 1-mile span.

Abortion is illegal in Bristol, Tennessee, but down the road in Virginia, a clinic provides abortions. The Bristol Women’s Health Clinic relocated to Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn an almost 50-year decision that protected a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

The number of abortions administered in Virginia has increased since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, according to analysis of data from the state health department and the Society of Family Planning.

 

“It was started because of the need,” said the clinic’s administrative director, Karolina Ogorek. “It wasn’t anything other than the fact that a mile and a half down the road, the services we provide are illegal.

The majority of the clinic’s patients are from out of state. All of the states that touch Virginia have completely banned or restricted abortion except Maryland, which drove travel to the last Southern state where access remains.

Reproductive choice also drove voters to the polls in Virginia and other states. Turnout was high in Virginia at almost 40%, though not as high as the last time in 2019 when all the Virginia General Assembly seats were on the ballot.

Kentucky and Ohio voters also signaled strong support for abortion access. Kentucky re-elected a Democratic governor whose opponent strongly opposed abortion, and Ohio voters supported a referendum to enshrine access in the state’s constitution.

Virginia Democrats picked up a slim majority they will have for the next two years. They delivered on their campaign promise and pre-filed an amendment to the state’s constitution on Nov. 20 that would secure reproductive freedom and protection — but it has a long, procedural way to go.

For now, Virginia remains a refuge for women whose choice has been restricted in other states.

The ‘hardship’ of travel for medical help

Tennessee had a trigger law to ban abortion, meaning they had a law in place to ban abortion weeks after Roe was overturned completely. It slipped through a budget negotiation late at night.

That led to an influx of patients from Southern states. People visit the clinic from as far away as Louisiana, according to Ogorek.

“There is not a single person that ever thinks they are ever going to make this decision until you have to,” Ogorek said.

She wishes more people understood the hardship of such a journey.

“Not just for the women but their entire family,” Ogorek said. “It has such a big effect on more than just one person.”

About 55% of women at Ogorke’s clinic are at or below the poverty line, she said.


“The decision to terminate a pregnancy is not for everyone, and we recognize, and we support that,” Ogorek said. “Unfortunately, people who are anti-choice will never support a choice.”

She said that abortion restrictions are not a good idea because a 12 or 15-week restriction usually turns into an outright ban.

Protesters outside of Ogorek’s work are nothing new. The office provides patient escorts and security to help women get into their clinics.

Other help offered

Anti-abortion protesters who gather almost every day outside of Bristol Women’s Health Clinic hope to connect women with other resources.

David Gerrells lives in Tennessee. He considers abortions a murder that goes against God’s will. His church hopes to convince women that they are already a parent and not to go through with the procedure.

“It makes us angry and sad and hurt for the ones that are lost – not just the babies but for the mothers, the fathers,” Gerrells said.

His church, Christ Bible Church, and other groups want to help through various ministries and organizations. They provide money, homes, support, and community to women, according to Gerrells.

“We want these people to raise their own children, but we’re very big on walking alongside them,” Gerrells said. “But, more importantly, they need to understand what it is to walk with Christ.”

Orville Fisher has spoken against abortion for about 15 years. He works with the international organization 40 Days for Life. An abortion ban would be positive for Virginia and its citizens, he said.

Fisher recommended the Pathways Pregnancy Resource Center across the Tennessee border, which helps pregnant women.

The resource center was contacted multiple times but said they could not do an interview until next year.

Enshrining abortion into the state constitution

Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, is “absolutely in favor of choice of” and access to abortion.

“Anecdotally, we also know women are flying into Virginia or driving long distances into the state to get these services,” Willett said.

The option for medical services in Virginia is fortunate, he said, although anything but convenient.

“For a lot of women, it’s an absolute hurdle they can’t clear because of the expense,” Willett said.

He said they have to pay for transportation, take off time for work, and find someone to travel with them.

Willett voiced concerns about the state losing doctors and women’s health care providers if the 15-week restriction proposed by state Republicans went into effect.

“What you’re seeing in other states where abortion is heavily restricted or outright banned, a lot of the states are also putting criminal penalties in place for the providers,” he said.

Ogorek recalled how healthcare providers were “cautiously optimistic” before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case that overturned Roe.

“After Roe fell, we were devastated,” Ogorek said. “Clinics closed.”

She shut down her Knoxville practice, which she said was “flourishing.”

“I think what is sad is that, just we’ve lost a lot more lately than we won,” Ogorek said. “That’s the hard part.”

Ogorek will keep her eyes on the General Assembly and continue to encourage people to vote.

“If they impose a 15-week ban, I will do whatever I have to do to keep us open for as long as we can stay open,” Ogorek said. It’s just not a question. Until that very last minute that somebody tells me I have to shut my doors, I won’t.”

 

VCU InSight journalist Brigette Kelly contributed to this report.

By Sahara Sriraman/Capital News Service

Video by Brigette Kelly/VCU InSight


Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.

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Upcoming Events

Dec
12
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7:30 pm American Legion Community Band C... @ Boggs Chapel at R-MA
American Legion Community Band C... @ Boggs Chapel at R-MA
Dec 12 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
American Legion Community Band Christmas Concert @ Boggs Chapel at R-MA
The American Legion Community Band, located in Front Royal, Virginia, was formed in 1986 and has been playing concerts in the area ever since. The conductors and band members are all volunteer musicians from the local[...]
Dec
13
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6:30 pm Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Dec 13 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Bingo to support the American Cancer Society mission, organized by Relay For Life of Front Royal. Every Wednesday evening Early Bird Bingo at 6:30 p.m. Regular Bingo from 7-9:30 p.m. Food and refreshments available More[...]
Dec
16
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7:00 am Pancake Breakfast @ Riverton United Methodist Church
Pancake Breakfast @ Riverton United Methodist Church
Dec 16 @ 7:00 am – 10:00 am
Pancake Breakfast @ Riverton United Methodist Church
Join us for pancakes, sausage, scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausage gravy, and juice/coffee! All are invited for this FREE event. Offering will be accepted.
10:00 am 10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Dec 16 @ 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Journey back in time and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of a Civil War Encampment during the holidays. Interact with the 10th VA Infantry, also known as the Valley Guards,[...]
1:00 pm The Nutcracker @ Skyline High School
The Nutcracker @ Skyline High School
Dec 16 @ 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm
The Nutcracker @ Skyline High School
Italia Performing Arts is pleased to announce its own student production of The Nutcracker, a Christmas classic to be enjoyed by the whole family! When: Saturday, December 16th at 1:00 PM and 5:00 PM Where:[...]
Dec
17
Sun
10:00 am 10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Dec 17 @ 10:00 am – 2:00 pm
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Journey back in time and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of a Civil War Encampment during the holidays. Interact with the 10th VA Infantry, also known as the Valley Guards,[...]
Dec
20
Wed
6:30 pm Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Dec 20 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Bingo to support the American Cancer Society mission, organized by Relay For Life of Front Royal. Every Wednesday evening Early Bird Bingo at 6:30 p.m. Regular Bingo from 7-9:30 p.m. Food and refreshments available More[...]
Dec
27
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6:30 pm Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Dec 27 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Bingo to support the American Cancer Society mission, organized by Relay For Life of Front Royal. Every Wednesday evening Early Bird Bingo at 6:30 p.m. Regular Bingo from 7-9:30 p.m. Food and refreshments available More[...]
Jan
1
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5:30 am First Day Hikes at Sky Meadows @ Sky Meadows State Park
First Day Hikes at Sky Meadows @ Sky Meadows State Park
Jan 1 @ 5:30 am – 1:00 pm
First Day Hikes at Sky Meadows @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area: While the American tradition of celebrating the New Year occurs at midnight on New Year’s Eve, other cultures celebrate by enjoying the sunrise on New Year’s Day. As part of the continuing American[...]
Jan
3
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6:30 pm Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Jan 3 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Bingo to support the American Cancer Society mission, organized by Relay For Life of Front Royal. Every Wednesday evening Early Bird Bingo at 6:30 p.m. Regular Bingo from 7-9:30 p.m. Food and refreshments available More[...]