Friday, June 2, 2023

Guest Post by Debra Turner: We Need a Local Public Defender’s Office

A statue of Lady Justice towers high above
or local court house.
There are 30 Public Defender Office locations in Virginia, staffed, funded and managed by the Commonwealth’s Indigent Defense Commission to “protect the Constitutional right to counsel for people who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer.” Harrisonburg is one of the most populous areas in the state still without a Public Defender’s Office.  Our community is relying solely on a shrinking pool of court appointed attorneys to meet the needs of indigent defendants.

Public defenders do not replace court appointed attorneys, and both options are available in all of the areas with Public Defender’s Offices, such as in nearby jurisdictions like Lexington, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Staunton, Winchester and Charlottesville, to name a few. 
According to Defense Attorney Gene Hart, chair of a committee tasked by the Community Criminal Justice Board to study the issue, the pool of lawyers in our area willing or able to serve as court appointed attorneys is diminishing at the same time that the demand for them is increasing. This is partly because reimbursement is only $158 per case for misdemeanors and $1235 for a felony case in Circuit Court, whereas public defenders have a salary set by the Virginia Legislature. Their salary levels are set by the Indigent Defense Commission (IDC). No additional local tax dollars are required to be spent on salaries or facilities.
Low reimbursement of court appointed attorneys leads to high caseloads with less representation. This has resulted in comments from some local individuals about their experience with their court appointed attorneys such as, "They often came to see me the day before the court date or for a few minutes just before the hearing, and never prior to that." Or "I called my attorney numerous times and left voicemails asking when and at what time my court date was and what was going to happen, and was never called back.” And, ";My court appointed attorney never responded to my phone calls, messages, or letters, and never came to see me when I was incarcerated."
Often public defenders get better results which ultimately saves money all around. The Public Defender’s Office saves money by being more efficient by pooling resources. They have specialists and a central office building. They waste less time traveling as they usually serve just one courthouse.  They have access to a full-time Immigration Specialist which would be a giant plus for an area like ours with high ethnic diversity.  With in-office Mitigation Specialists like counselors and social workers, mental health issues are de-criminalized, and there is more moral accountability and compassion.  A Public Defender’s Office has a team to rely on and is not just a single private practice court appointed lawyer burdened with too many indigent cases.
Public Defenders must follow standards of practice that are client-centered.  They are scrutinized and are very competent. The Virginia Defenders Indigent Defense Commission summarizes their mission best as: “Dedicated to protecting and defending the rights and dignity of our clients through zealous, compassionate, high quality legal advocacy.” 

It’s time that the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area makes this kind of high-quality representation available to our indigent population.  Please contact your local state legislators, Senator Mark Obenshain and Delegate Tony Wilt, and ask them to introduce a bill in the 2024 Virginia General Assembly to open such an office in our community.

This was submitted as an Open Forum to the Daily News-Record May 26.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

A New "Apocrypha"? On The Church Creating A Priority Reading List For Its Members

One of many inspiring writings not
included in our canon.
He said to them, 'Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.' Matthew 13:52 (NIV)

In the early history of the church many of its leaders made use of apocryphal Hebrew texts that were seen as having inspirational and instructional value but were not considered a part of the Jewish canon. There were also numerous Christian apocryphal writings that were widely circulated, though not given the same endorsement as the books that were eventually included in the New Testament as we know it. Some of these were seen as theologically questionable, but others were widely circulated as worthwhile reading.

Throughout the centuries since, countless numbers of faith-inspiring books have been written that have been of priceless help to believers everywhere, along with writings considered dubious or even misleading.

Meanwhile, as a part of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the 16th century Anabaptist movement, study groups of North American believers have been helping produce a Bible with notes reflecting the core beliefs of Anabaptist-minded Christians. This reflects the seriousness with which we take scripture as formative for our faith and every aspect of our life.

But should we have similar groups of believers focus on creating a recommended reading list of other trusted authors throughout the centuries? This would not mean elevating their writing to the status of the canon of books that make up our Bible, but would be list of faith-formative writings affirmed as being true to our understanding of scripture and supportive of a Christ-based understanding of our faith.

This would also mean excluding widely read authors not seen as representing the core values and beliefs of a Christ-based way of life, and would simply be endorsing those that are seen as having special merit. This compilation would not be considered comprehensive, of course. And it would be subject to regular review, revision and addition, as works that are urgently recommended for the reserve shelf in our church libraries and which would be on every believer's priority reading list:

Here is a small sample of publications that come to my mind:

The Didache: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles
The Imitation of Christ (T. Kempis)
Revelations of Divine Love (Julian of Norwich)
Practicing the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence)
The Complete Works of Menno Simons (or a condensed version yet to be published)
The Martyrs Mirror (or the condensed Mirror of the Martyrs)
The Cost of Discipleship (D. Bonhoeffer)
The Anabaptist Vision (H. Bender)
Life Together (D. Bonhoeffer)
Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger (R.Sider)
The Upside Down Kingdom (D. Kraybill)
The Christian Calling (V. Vogt)
Discipling In The Church: Recovering A Ministry of the Gospel (M. Jeschke)
Who Will Be A Witness? (D. Hart)
Fight Like Jesus (J. Porterfield)

The total number could be in the hundreds of books seen as supporting the kind of faith and faithfulness to which all of God's people should aspire. 

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Reprehensible Examples of Men Behaving Badly

Residents of the Gemeinschaft Women's House wrote the following examples of some of the bad experiences they've had with men in their lives:

Working in retail sales for 12 years I would frequently have men wait for me after work and ask me for my phone number, to go home with them, or for other unwelcome favors.

So many men in my life seemed to feel that because we were together they "own" me and had the right to insult and abuse me.

If I had any male friends or spoke to other men I was called a "whore" and accused of having slept with them.

I've had men send me unwanted nude pictures via Facebook messenger, or offer money for nude photos.

My ex-boy friend yelled at me for dressing a certain way and for wearing makeup, then cheated on me because "I looked bad" (his words).

Various male friends offered me a needed ride in exchange for sexual favors.

Many men in my life claimed they loved the woman I was until I outshone them, then they forced me to dull myself and made me feel bad for being outgoing and successful.

Of the four male landlords I've had every one of them propositioned me.

Most of the men in my life have been possessive, jealous and controlling, and/or have mostly ignored me and taken me for granted.

My husband was verbally abusive and abandoned me when I needed him most.

I've been made to walk ahead or behind a man I was with so no one would know I was with him.

My husband's co workers and his boss each tried to get me to sleep with them.

I was hit and held down by my husband and sexually assaulted.

More than once I was abandoned at a place where I knew no one so my man could go out and see other women.

The lawyer who came to see me in jail the day before my sentencing hinted that I should break up with my boyfriend and that he was single.

I was sexually assaulted by three men the day after I was released from jail at a "friend's" house where I had been offered a place to shower and get myself together.

When I was homeless I've had men take all of my belongings and/or kick me out into the cold and on the streets after I refused to do sexual favors for them for their offering me a place to stay. 

A drunk customer grabbed and groped me recently at the restaurant where I work as a waitress.

On a related note, I recently read the following indictment sixteenth Century Menno Simons wrote about some of the (male) clergy in his day who abused their power with women in their parish: "It is manifest and undeniable that in our Netherlands the lascivious, bad, and good-for-nothing men whom they call pastors, ministers, masters, and teachers, some of whom wrong one woman or girl after the other, men who live in all manner of willfulness, ungodliness, idolatry, are dead drunk day and night, and do not know a single word of the Lord correctly, these men rob by their shameful trickery many God-fearing people, who before God and his angels seek nothing but to lead a righteous and unblameable life according to the direction of the word of God. They rob them of their country, honor, possessions, and even life, while they the deceivers live at liberty and ease." (Complete Works, p. 552)

But here's something more positive I posted two years ago, "Wanted: A Lot More Good Men."

Friday, May 19, 2023

A Son's Reflection On Savoring Each Moment

A rabbi was once asked, “Why do we always have to be faced with the fact that we must soon all die?”

His answer was, “So that we will truly appreciate the value and preciousness of our time here on this earth, and make the most of every moment.”

Years ago our second son sent us a copy of an e-mail he had posted to a number of his friends after he and his young wife had walked their dogs through a nearby snow covered graveyard one night. 

He wrote, “There is such a remarkable transformation of our little world when blanketed by several inches of frozen moisture. The reflection of light from the white crust creates a surreal illumination of otherwise unnoticed objects under the night sky... there is a silence that is in part due to the lack of people venturing out, but primarily caused by the muffling of sound, as if the world was covered by a heavy blanket. Within this silence, surrounded by the ghosts of lives that no longer wake up, see the sun, or sense the crispness of new snow, I found myself reflecting on the... seemingly brief moment that constitutes our time on this earth.   

“Now I am home, typing away in my small but cozy apartment in a little house in a little town, in a little moment that relative to the scheme of time is small and seemingly insignificant. But within this moment I have a clarity that compels me to hold my wife's hand a little tighter, scratch my dogs bellies a little longer, thank God for the blessings in my life and not complain about the problems, and tell my friends that I love them very much and thank them for being a part of indelible memories that bring warmth and light to my life as the night’s snow continues to fall.”

Coming from a son then less than half my age, his words spoke volumes about my need to take time to savor life’s every moment, to celebrate every day as a precious and fleeting gift.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Some Parts Of The Bible We Choose To Ignore

The Gideons International has made  
copies of the Bible available to millions.
During a long wait for a recent medical appointment I examined the copy of a Gideon King James Version of the Bible in the waiting room. As a lifetime reader and student of the scriptures, I tried to imagine how someone unfamiliar with the Bible might respond to this bedrock of our faith.

On the back page of the waiting room copy I found the Gideon list of passages that have brought comfort and help to millions, a testimony to why the Bible is one of the most treasured books of all time. Here are some the categories listed:

The Way of Salvation
Comfort in Time of Loneliness
Comfort in Time of Sorrow
Relief in Time of Suffering
Guidance in Time of Decision
Protection in Time of Danger
Courage in Time of Fear
Peace in Time of Turmoil
Rest in Time of Weariness
Strength in Time of Temptation
Warning in Time of Indifference
Forgiveness in Time of Conviction

Undoubtedly these passages have brought help and comfort to millions of readers in countless motels, waiting rooms and in other public places.

But the Bible is a very big book and is about an imperfect humanity in a greatly troubled world. And it is about a God who is not only about responding to our inner distresses and individual needs, but one who is heaven-bent on saving, restoring and blessing all of creation, the good, the bad and the ugly. Its texts shine a light on all kinds of darkness, and include stories about a flawed but loved humanity that so often disappoints and gets it all wrong. As such it is at times raw, difficult and even laborious to read.

So I wondered how someone unfamiliar with the Bible's life giving message might respond to random selections I realized might seem strange, confusing, or even troubling to a modern reader. Such as:

Numbers 2:1-4 (instructions for the journey from Egypt to Canaan)

"And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father's house: far off about the tabernacle of the congregation shall they pitch. And on the east side toward the rising of the son shall they of the standard of the camp of Judah pitch throughout their armies: and Nashon the son of Amminadab shall be captain of of the children of Judah. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred."

Exodus 27:1-3 (instructions for furnishing the tabernacle)

"And thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare: and the height thereof shall be three cubits. And thou shalt make the horns of it upon the four corners thereof: his horns shall be the same: and thou shalt overlay it with brass. And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ashes and his shovels, and his basons, and his fleshhooks, and his firepans: all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass."

I Chronicles 18:1-4 (stories about Israel's King David)

"Now after this it came to pass that David smote the Philistines, and subdued them, and took Gath and her towns out of the hands of the Philistines. And he smote Moab; and the Moabites became David's servants, and brought gifts. And David smote Hadadrezer king of Zobah unto Hamath, as he went to establish his dominion by the river Euphrates. And David took from him a thousand horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen: David also houghed* all the chariot horses, but reserved of them an hundred chariots." 

Some of the disconnect readers might feel with the above has to do with the centuries old form of English used. Obviously the 1611 King James translation, though beautiful, contains words and phrasing that often seem foreign to modern readers. It should be noted that recent Gideon Bibles use more modern and readable versions, but some passages like those above will still seem puzzling.

Please understand, I love the Bible. It's been a source of lifelong wisdom, hope and nurture for me and millions of others. And I wasn't specifically looking for problem passages here, yet I realize how much of the book, or really a collection of sacred writings and stories, I seldom if ever take time to read or to refer to on any regular basis, and never use as sermon material.

I'd be glad for your reflections, but here are some of my own:

1. In spite our questioning the relevance of some of the above sample passages, we can be sure that each was of profound interest to large numbers of people of faith in times past, so much so that these texts were painstakingly copied and carefully preserved and shared as an important part of their history and identity. 

2. As a part of a continued and unfolding story of God's people over millennia of time we can better understand and appreciate our faith today by better understanding the faith and life of millions of believers who have preceded us. They are all a part of our sacred but very human history.

3. Jesus, a devout and observant Jew, loved the Torah, and frequently quoted passages from the Psalms and the writings of the ancient prophets. Yet he was also selective in his use of Hebrew scripture texts, and never quoted any examples of the military conquests of Israel, of rites like circumcision, or of the need for elaborate human made temples for the worship of God. 

So maybe it's OK to read and heed the Bible much as Jesus did, with his own selection of topics and texts to which he gave priority. Not unlike the choice of of the many passages in the back of the Gideon Bible.

*hough: to hamstring, i.e., to sever the 'tendon of Achilles' of the hind legs of captured horses so as to render them useless.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

HARDTIME VIRGINIA, Vol. 8., No. 2 Parole edition, Spring 2023

2023 Parole Release Numbers Are the Lowest Ever 

I recently submitted the following letter to the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record:

Of the over 2000 who are parole eligible in Virginia's prisons, the Parole Board released only one person in April, and a total of only 14 since January. This means either the Department of Corrections, with its annual budget of $1.5 billion, is utterly failing to "correct" individuals, or the Parole Board is failing its responsibility to release those who have demonstrated a changed life.

At Buckingham Correctional Center, no one has been released for two years, and of the 95 cases reviewed at Augusta Correctional Center this year, not one was paroled.  

One officer recently wrote, "We are gravely hurt that the Parole Board is not accepting our recommendations. You men deserve better than this, and many of you have aged in prison and deserve to be released." Another noted, "I work here and see you men every day. I know the ones who intend on living right once released. But if they continue to keep you in prison it destroys your chances to be successful upon release."

Also, many "old law" inmates are eligible for geriatric release due to their having aged out of crime, as well as their often requiring ever more costly medical care. Yet only four such releases are among the 14 cited. Are individuals in wheelchairs and people in need of nursing care really a threat to public safety? 

As taxpayers and concerned citizens, we simply ask that the parole board fulfill its mission "to grant release to those whose release is compatible with public safety."

Green Rock Prisoner Files Suit Regarding Parole Board's Consideration of "Seriousness of the Crime"

Steven W. Goodman at Green Rock Correctional Center has filed a lawsuit against the Parole Board for considering "the seriousness of the crime" and other factors related to a person's criminal record as a basis for denying release, stating that Va. Code 53.1-136(3)(a) limits the scope of investigation to only two pre-conditions for release, eligibility and suitability

He also cites the following section of Va. Code 43.1-1555 (A): "No person shall be released on parole by the Board until a thorough investigation has been made into the prisoner's history, physical and mental condition and character and his conduct, employment and attitude while in prison (emphasis mine). The Board shall also determine that his release on parole will not be incompatible with the interests of society or of the prisoner."

95 Up For Parole at Augusta Correctional Center This Year, Not One Released

Here's a part of a letter from one of those turned down:

Of course I got turned down again for my geriatric parole. I do everything they ask to be done, plus take programs they don't ask. My institutional record is clean, with no charges since being locked up. Plus I saved two officers' lives. Everyone tells me I'm rehabilitated and should be given a second chance, so I can go home and take care of my dad. 
I'm almost 65 years old. there is no way I'm going to do anything wrong.They keep saying I have a violent history, but my past was not violent except for one time, plus the Parole Board is supposed to just look at your institutional record, not your past before you were locked up.
My health is also not the best. I have arthritis, eye problems, high blood pressure, knee problems and more.
I just hope they tell me what they expect of me, what they want me to do, and just give me a second chance as they say they will do. - Timothy Rankin

Here are excerpts of letters of recommendation by two of Mr. Rankin's officers at ACC;

"Mr. Rankin has always been polite, with a positive attitude, and is willing to help anyone with a task...He is currently working with Buildings and Grounds as is trusted to use Class A and B tools (drills, cutter, screw drivers, etc.). The DOC is meant to rehabilitate inmates and Mr. Rankin is a great example of what rehabilitation looks like. I am confident that Mr. Rankin will be a contributing member of society and would be welcomed into my neighborhood. He has family waiting from him who will be a great support system for him."

"During my career in corrections Mr. Rankin gives me faith that there is in fact rehabilitation inside our Virginia prison system. He would be welcomed into my neighborhood any day."

Excerpts From Other Letters by Deserving Prisoners Denied Multiple Times

I am so disappointed in the outcome. It took the Board exactly 71 days to make this decision. Now I have only four more interviews left before I mandatory my complete sentence. I wanted so much to get out of prison while I still have some life left, and while I still have some family members living. - L.E. Patterson, Deerfield Correctional Center, denied 21 times 

I recently found out that I was denied parole once again, the ninth time.At age 70, and with a perfect prison record, you'd think they would consider it. And today (2/17/23) I found out that the Second Look Act was tabled also. I guess Governor Youngkin was just giving lip service about how he was for second chances. Not one man has made parole from BKCC for over two years. - Stephano Colosi, Buckingham Correctional Center

What Parole Chair Dotson Told a Group of Men at BKCC May 13, 2022

• Inmates are not just numbers, but human beings.
• Governor Youngkin believes second chances deeply, and told me to be serious about second chances.
• We want to improve outcomes for inmates and their families.
• The Board should listen to all who speak on your behalf. 
• More face-to-face interviews are needed.
* Inmates need to show more remorse, and how their choices affected the inmate's and victim's families. 
• The brains of those who commit crime(s) under the age of 25 are not yet fully developed.
• The Board needs to provide you with a fair and transparent parole process.
• The Parole Board is not serving inmates well. We don't have a fairs system. 
• Not having a home plan is not a good enough reason not to grant parole.
• No crime should exempt someone from parole. 
- notes taken by Charles E. Zellers, Sr., Buckingham Correctional Center

Monday, May 1, 2023

Our Children Want Happily Married Parents

As a pastor and marriage and family counselor I’ve been keeping record of the number of local marriages and divorces each year since 1996. While our Rockingham/Harrisonburg population has grown significantly since then, the number of divorces granted last year, 328, was at a surprising all time low, and the number of marriage licenses issued, 954, remained at near the average of 944 each year during that period of time.

While 328 marital breakups may mark an improvement, it nevertheless means the painful disruption of the lives of 656 partners, along with their children and countless friends, parents, grandparents and other loved ones. 

A divorce or separation is one of ten kinds of adverse childhood experiences (ACE's) contributing to trauma in children, even if the parting of parents is amicable. In fact it may be especially difficult for children to deal with this kind of “loss of loved ones” when there is no clear evidence of abuse, infidelity or addiction that make remaining together untenable. 

Abuse, infidelity and addictions take many forms, of course, but since children do long for happily married parents, most would urge their parents to get whatever help necessary to bring about needed changes in each of their mom's and dad's behaviors and necessary repairs in their relationship. Everyone benefits when partners, with God’s help and the support of others, make amends and work things out, if they are willing leave no stone unturned in doing it well.

According to the Center for Child Counseling*, divorce can be a significant ACE when…

• It introduces intense feelings of uncertainty, often for the first time if it happens very early in a child’s life.

• It causes an environment of chronic stress from anger, bitterness, and fighting.

• It causes economic strain for one or both of the divorcing parents.

• It separates the child not only from one parent but that parent’s family members who may have been a loving and stable influence.

• It exposes a child to a parent’s new partners, and results in an increased risk of physical or sexual abuse.

While we have good records of documented marriages in our community, we lack any record of the increased number of partners who are living together without registering their de facto “marriage”. This means we have no record of how many of these undocumented marriages also experience undocumented “divorces," with equally distressing effects on children and/or other close family members and friends.

Here are the official numbers as provided by the local Circuit Court:

Year       Marriages     Divorces

1996           873                 387

1997           950                 405

1998           964                 396

1999           932                 405

2000           947                 365

2001          1003                438     (most annual marriages)

2002           976                 421

2003           961                 399

2004           959                 437

2005           889                 381

2006           929                 389

2007           925                 434

2008           950                 405

2009           903                 347 

2010           879                 358     (fewest annual marriages)

2011           933                 433

2012           995                 445

2013           924                 484    

2014           972                 427

2015           955                 474

2016           985                 612     (most annual divorces)

2017           983                 426

2018           935                 476

2019           947                 487

2020           882                 445

2021           994                 466

2022           954                 332     (fewest annual divorces)

We should note that the marriage numbers above are based solely on the number of marriage licenses issued, and include those who come here from other localities to marry, whereas divorce numbers include only the legal breakups of people who live in the City or County. However, it is reasonable to assume that a roughly equal number of residents from here marry in other jurisdictions as marry here from other communities, so the numbers given should be reasonably valid for comparison purposes.

It should also be noted that we cannot assume a rate of divorce based on any one year's numbers, as in "35% of first time marriages in our community will end in divorce." Many of the above couples are marrying or divorcing for a second, third or fourth time, but with numbers like these over a period of many years, we can safely conclude that the odds of a given first marriage surviving are well over 50%.

For God’s sake, and for our children’s sake, let’s do all we can to keep improving our “happily ever after” numbers.