Major changes could be coming to Northern Virginia’s criminal justice system, with four new prosecutors elected this week promising significant reforms.
Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in Arlington and Falls Church, and Steve Descano in Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax brand themselves as the most progressive of the new local commonwealth’s attorneys.
The shifts are expected to include reduced or eliminated cash bail, fewer low-level drug prosecutions and other changes.
Amy Ashworth, in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park, has also promised changes, but ones that may not immediately go quite as far. Ashworth is replacing Paul Ebert, who is retiring after more than 50 years in office.
“We’re all going to bring real criminal justice reform to our respective communities, as well as help get it out and make it filter through the rest of Virginia,” Descano said.
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The new prosecutors will have an influence on the state’s association of commonwealth’s attorneys as the group lobbies in Richmond.
Dehghani-Tafti and Descano ousted incumbents in June’s Democratic primaries. Descano also faced a challenge Tuesday though from a candidate endorsed by law enforcement groups.
“The people of Fairfax County were given a very clear choice … between the status quo and a new era of reform-minded prosecution, and they spoke very loudly with a result of approximately 24 points. That is a mandate. The people of Fairfax County voted for change. They voted for reform. And I’ve heard them loud and clear, and I intend to give it to them,” Descano said in an interview Wednesday.
Among those reforms: ending the use of cash bail, ending simple marijuana possession prosecutions, limiting the charges people face, increasing transparency with defendants about available evidence in the case and increasing diversion and treatment programs.
“A big part of what I want to do is I want to make sure that for those individuals who are low-level nonviolent offenders, we actually help them get at the root causes of their issues in a way that we can break a cycle of recidivism before it starts so that those individuals never graduate to becoming violent dangerous individuals to the community,” Descano said.
It is unclear whether prosecutors can end all marijuana prosecutions, and the issue has led to a court battle elsewhere in the state, but Descano is confident there is a route to make it happen.
In one case of limiting charges, Descano has promised to only charge someone with felony larceny if the amount taken is $1,500 or more, rather than the state’s current threshold of $500 that changes the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Descano has also promised to never seek the death penalty.
He said the current justice system was “stuck in the past … failing a large group of our community and, quite frankly, needed an update.”
Data collection and analysis would be key to making Fairfax County an example other areas can follow, Descano said.
“It’s also going to show how we can get rid of systemic disparities in our criminal justice system so that we not only make our communities more safe but we make our criminal justice system more just,” he said.
Descano promises to build coalitions with prosecutors in the office and the police and others involved in law enforcement.
“We all have a duty to serve the public in the way that they wish to be served,” Descano said. “It was very clear that the people of Fairfax County want a new way of prosecuting, they want a new view of criminal justice to take hold in Fairfax County.”
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