Convening in August, the Virginia General Assembly special session recently concluded with the passage of a series of bills to address criminal justice reform. While these bills are all steps in the right direction, more needs to be done in the upcoming January session to address the gaps and bills that did not pass.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a law to give Civilian Review Boards the power to initiate investigations and have a say in disciplinary rulings for law enforcement groups. While these groups existed before, they were previously restricted to an advisory role. However, this new law, which goes into effect July 1st 2021, only allows localities to implement this measure, rather than actually requiring these oversight groups. Shifting to mandatory civilian input would allow for greater transparency and accountability.
In further attempts to reduce violence and police brutality, House Bill 5049 limits the use of military weapons and vehicles by police, except when the Criminal Justice Service Board approves a waiver. The bill allows for the use of “kinetic impact munitions,” such as rubber and plastic-coated projectiles, only in the direct defense of an officer or other person. This is especially significant in the context of protests, with many police across the country using tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds. Other bills that passed include measures to increase crisis training, de-escalation techniques, and bias training.
America has a school lunch problem. You don’t have to be in a cafeteria yourself to see it. We hear about it in the news amid reports of students getting their arms stamped or their hot lunches thrown away because of “lunch debt.” We can see it in the dumpsters, too -- one study of Boston middle schools showed that students discarded roughly $432,349 worth of food annually.
We can see it in the school menus, where companies like Domino’s vie to get their products onto the plates of America’s children, and in class schedules that sometimes allow kids just 15 minutes to eat their lunch. We can see it in the federal regulations that won’t subsidize dairy-free milk alternatives, despite the fact that non-white students are often lactose-intolerant.
It’s a chronically broken system, as every fourth-grader with a styrofoam tray can tell you. But as flawed as the National School Lunch Program is, it’s currently a critical component in the diets of many children.
The hot lunches served in schools are particularly critical for families that qualify for subsidized lunch. In the 2012-2013 school year, over half of America’s students were eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Crucially, 16% of America’s children were living in food-insecure households as of 2017-2019. For food-insecure families, school lunches can be a child’s best chance at a reliable, hot and nutritious meal. But the meals themselves can be hit or miss.
The COVID pandemic has caused an economic downturn that has disproportionately affected women in the job market and has led to an increase in income and economic inequality between the sexes. As a result of stay-at-home orders that interfere with out-of-home childcare and the closure of non-essential businesses, reduction in work hours has resulted in women working fewer hours or leaving their jobs entirely and has led to a 20-50% increase in the gender wage gap. If present trends continue, women will become more likely to be unemployed or have severely reduced hours and may even enter into poverty. In sum, equality between the sexes will become increasingly more difficult to achieve.
Historically, economic downturns have affected women's job retention rates and work hours less because they generally occupy stable professions like teaching and nursing. Interestingly, the COVID-19 economic downturn has proven to have the opposite trends. State-issued stay-at-home orders have rendered complete job losses in non-essential professions whose businesses cannot continue to operate and caused certain professions to transition to being fully virtual. Statistically, only 22% of female workers are employed in highly telecommutable occupations, as opposed to 28% of male workers. Additionally, only 17% of employed women work in critical occupations compared to 24% of employed men. These statistics give us reason to believe that women have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19-related restrictions.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has transformed from a solidly red state to an increasingly progressive blue state in the last few decades. In April, Governor Ralph Northam made Virginia the first state in the South to pass anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. In July, the Governor also decriminalized low-level marijuana possession.
Despite this progress, the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system remains decidedly less progressive than other states’. While the Commonwealth currently only has one state juvenile detention center and has seen a decline in the total number of youth incarcerated, recidivism remains a key issue. Annually, nearly three-fourths of Virginia’s youngest inmates are rearrested for new crimes within three years of their most recent release.
On the surface, it may seem progressive to only have one detention center, but around 75% of Bon Air inmates live more than an hour away. This leaves children feeling isolated and makes rehabilitation, which often involves working with families, even more challenging.
Virginia continues to take harsh and unproductive measures to discipline youths, utilizing solitary confinement and issuing juvenile life without parole sentences. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the rate at which students are referred to law enforcement is almost three times higher in Virginia than in the rest of the nation. Over a period of three years, nearly half of all juvenile criminal complaints in Chesterfield County were issued against students under 15 years of age.
It would be pointless for me to list the ways this pandemic has tossed and turned our daily lives. We are living that experience, and I would rather not recount the number of days I’ve spent cooped up inside my apartment. We’ve done our parts, isolating from friends and family, maintaining a social distance and wearing masks when we go out. But, some Americans are facing this virus in a way and at a place that perhaps many reading this post have not: at the kitchen table.
During this pandemic, food has served as a point of contention for many Americans struggling to pay their bills, cover their rent, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. In fact, 40% of respondents in a recent survey said that the pandemic contributed to their first instance of food insecurity.
Food insecurity, the “disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources,” is no new phenomenon. In 2018, 11.1% of Americans faced some form of food insecurity during the year.
The pandemic has certainly exacerbated the issue, as historically high unemployment rates emphasize the increasing difficulty for Americans to afford basic needs. Feeding America estimates that 15.6% of the total population, or 50 million people, will face food insecurity this year. That’s an increase of over 13 million people from 2018, and a higher rate than that seen during the Great Recession just a decade ago.