Hard numbers: Fairfax Co. prosecutor seeks to quantify disparities in justice system

With the national discussion on criminal justice reform, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said he wants to see some hard numbers.

Descano’s office is taking part in a three-year data collection and analysis program: “To help us root out disparities, whether it be racial, economic, or geographic, and continue to build a more fair and just criminal justice system in Fairfax.”

In what he calls a “soup to nuts” investigation, data will include specifics about what defendants are charged with, and what happens during their first appearance in court. As the process continues, the data will include whether defendants are offered a plea agreement, as well as sentences that are sought and ordered.

“Talking to the community, I realize that in many corners of our county, there are people who don’t trust the criminal justice system, and think that there are disparities,” Descano said in a WTOP interview.

Descano said he wouldn’t be surprised if the data shows there are some disparities in Fairfax County.

“I don’t think there’s a justice system in America that couldn’t do better, that doesn’t have disparities that could be focused on and eradicated,” said Descano. “I think this data is going to show us exactly where to focus our resources, so we can attack those disparities.”

Descano’s office is going to be working with professors and academics from American University, the Vera Institute of Justice and Measures for Justice in gathering, compiling and analyzing the data.

“We are going to be building a database that is publicly accessible and searchable by members of our community,” Descano said.

While the entire project and report will take three years, the information being gathered will be available soon.

“The community is going to be able to see data as we get started, because we’re not waiting to put everything into one big report,” said Descano. “As we get data and have it analyzed, we’re going to be sharing it with the community.”

Descano was elected in 2019, promising criminal justice reform, defeating long-time Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh. Recent reform has included ceasing prosecution for marijuana possession, no longer seeking cash bail and policies aimed at reducing mass incarceration.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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