Fairfax County makes sweeping sentencing reforms

Major sentencing reforms have just been made in Fairfax County, Virginia, and its top prosecutor wants to see state-level changes too.

“The overall goal here is to build a more fair and just criminal justice system, while also having a system that actually keeps our community safe,” said Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.

Prosecutors in Descano’s office will stop using mandatory minimum sentences in plea deals, and charging people who commit minor offenses with felonies. And that’s just the start.

“We’re going to make sure we treat kids as kids instead of charging them as adults, and we’re going to make increased use of alternative dispositions and diversion programs,” Descano said.

In cases involving probation, prosecutors now must carefully customize how long it lasts to meet the needs of each person.

“We want to get at the underlying issues that somebody has, tailor a probation length around that and really focus them on getting their issue taken care of and taking the rehabilitative steps. Not keeping them in the system for years and years for no good reason,” said Descano.

He is asking lawmakers to approve a statewide ban on mandatory minimum sentences as well.

“We can do so much to eradicate mass incarceration, but we actually do need help from the General Assembly,” Descano said.

“Legislators in particular know how rife our code is with mandatory minimums. And they now are keyed in to how devastating mandatory minimums are for communities, and how they don’t do anything to keep our communities safe. They perpetuate mass incarceration that is felt predominantly by Black and brown Virginians.”

Descano said he is receiving lots of positive feedback from state lawmakers, and he is hoping to see the proposal pass during the upcoming General Assembly session which starts next month.

The sentencing reforms are just the latest changes made by Descano.

Last week he said that prosecutors in his office will no longer seek cash bail, and he wants Virginia to abolish the cash bail system entirely.

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter and anchor at WTOP.

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