My home state of Arizona made national news in 2017 when Sheriff Joe Arpaio received a pardon from President Trump for ignoring a court order to stop racially profiling Latinos as undocumented immigrants. The coverage resulted in scrutiny of the many alleged human rights violations by Arpaio, including operating Tent City for 24 years, an outdoor prison where inmates were forced to work in chain gangs. This archaic punishment involved inmates being bound together to perform physically strenuous tasks such as clearing land, repairing buildings, or paving roads without pay.
This month, my home state was the subject of another national controversy when Democratic Senator Sinema voted no on a $15 minimum wage with an exaggerated thumbs down motion. The minimum wage debate that has raged on since President Biden took office remains at the forefront of U.S politics, with Senator Bernie Sanders calling the current minimum a “starvation wage,” while those on the right argue that raising the minimum wage would raise the cost of living as well. Yet during this debate, there has been no mention of the fact that the federal government does not require inmates to be paid any minimum wage.
Compared to Arizona, the Commonwealth of Virginia is ostensibly more progressive in the realm of criminal justice: Virginia does not have outdoor prisons and is close to fully legalizing cannabis. However, inmates in Virginia are only paid between 27 and 45 cents an hour for their labor, a far cry from the current minimum wage of $7.25.
To uphold its diplomatic influence in the Pacific region, the United States maintains special agreements with the Freely Associated States (FAS), which include the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. This set of agreements, known as the Compacts of Free Association (COFA), functions symbiotically, allowing the U.S. to establish military installations on FAS land and oversee policies related to security, while providing economic assistance for the island states. In addition, COFA makes FAS citizens residing in the U.S. mainland or its territories eligible for federal health and education services and permits them to serve in the U.S. military.
Since its enactment in 1986, the unique arrangement has also helped facilitate migration from the FAS to the U.S. According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the population of compact migrants living in the U.S. increased by nearly 70% between 2005-2018, and it is expected to continue to rise. There are now four states on the mainland that are home to 3,000+ FAS citizens.
The population growth of compact migrants in the U.S. has led to higher costs for states and territories due to increased demand for the government’s social services included in COFA.
COFA’s economic and federal assistance provisions will expire by the end of 2024. This presents the Biden Administration with an opportunity to elevate the needs of FAS citizens and reaffirm a standing U.S. commitment to support the Pacific Islands. Doing so would help the U.S. counter growing tensions with China, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19, and provide it with a key foreign policy tool to contain Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the region.
In 2018, a group of students in the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science embarked on a bold research project to solve a tough question: Could they use machine learning to figure out who was misbehaving on Wikipedia?
The students created a machine learning algorithm that studied the behavior of users who’d been blocked by the site and those who hadn’t. The algorithm then processed that data to predict which unblocked users might be deserving of a block.
UVA School of Data Science’s Wikimedian-in-Residence Lane Rasberry explained that a machine learning algorithm like this could outperform 1,000 human volunteers, each contributing 100 hours of civility patrolling per year, by running for only ten hours.
So what did the data scientists do with this magical, predictive algorithm they’d created?
“We immediately threw all of it away,” said Rasberry.
“We imagined that this would be a multi-year project but the initial results showed high predictive power, so we paused until we could plan how to use it ethically,” Rasberry wrote. “As it turned out, the technical data science is easy, but the social aspect of having an algorithm pass judgment on human behavior is much more difficult to manage. It would be inexpensive and easy for anyone to recreate the tool using this research precedent, but producing ethical guidance to prevent the tool from misuse is much more difficult.”
As Rasberry explains, there’s a dark side to this kind of data-driven “predictive policing.” Data-driven algorithms and other forms of machine learning can grow far beyond what their human creators envisioned, or even comprehended. Tesla executive Elon Musk, no stranger to controversy, famously referred to artificial intelligence as “summoning the demon.”
That “demon” is alive at PredPol, a predictive policing company that contracts with local police departments to provide surveillance recommendations. The company transitioned to the name Geolitica on March 2, 2021, but this article will refer to its original name and purpose: to “analyz[e] historical data [in order to]... help better position patrol officers to prevent crime before it occurs.” PredPol is part of a disturbing trend of using artificial intelligence for policing. Other iterations are its predictive policing bedfellow Palantir and the controversial recidivism predictor tool COMPAS.
On February 22, 2021, both houses of the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation to abolish the death penalty.
When Governor Ralph Northam signs the bill into law, which he has already indicated he will do, Virginia will become the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment, and the first southern state to do so. This is a historic step forward in the fight for criminal justice reform, given the inequities in the death penalty’s application.
Historically, Black defendants have received death sentences far more frequently than white defendants, often for lesser crimes. In addition, research shows that the race of the victim has been a determining factor in sentencing, as crimes with white victims are more likely to lead to death sentence convictions than those with Black victims. A host of activists have noted the gender and socioeconomic discrepancies in death penalty sentencing. Abolishing capital punishment will ultimately help eliminate some of these inequitable sentencing practices.
The death penalty has a long and storied history, especially in Virginia. In fact, the first recorded execution in America was in the Jamestown colony in 1608. Shortly after that, the Virginia governor enacted a law legalizing the death penalty for even the most minor of offenses. The state has executed over 1,300 people since then.
This is a national issue as well, although death sentences have been declining in recent years.
(Source: Death Penalty Information Center)
It was the nightmare scenario that some have been warning about for years; not a militant attack on our shores, but a covert infiltration into our systems. Early in 2021, a presently-unknown actor remotely accessed a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida and attempted to raise the level of sodium hydroxide to incredibly dangerous levels. A plant employee noticed the activity as it happened in front of his eyes, and the attempted poisoning of 15,000 people was stopped even before automated alerts would have notified workers of the change. The investigation remains ongoing, and authorities aren’t publicly suggesting a perpetrator yet.
Fallout continues from another dangerous breach of a software company, SolarWinds. Malicious actors, likely Russian according to US intelligence agencies, compromised SolarWinds software, which was subsequently downloaded onto customers’ systems in a software update. These customers included many government agencies and countless private companies. The initial hacking went unnoticed and unreported for months, exposing unclassified networks at the US Departments of Treasury, State, and Homeland Security (DHS). The full extent of the damage may not be fully understood for years.
Older incidents continue to resurface as well, as the Department of Justice (DOJ) unveiled charges against three North Korean military hackers, an extension of DOJ’s charges in the 2018 Sony hack. DOJ also charged the hackers with schemes to steal over $1.2 billion from banks across multiple continents and the theft of over ten million dollars worth of cryptocurrency.