New prosecutors to bring big changes in Northern Virginia

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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Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, House District 2, is congratulated by supporters during a Democratic Party watch event at Hyatt Place Virginia Beach Town Center, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Virginia Beach, Va. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, House District 2, is congratulated by supporters during a Democratic Party watch event at Hyatt Place Virginia Beach Town Center, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Virginia Beach, Va. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP) (AP/Stephen M. Katz)
Bill DeSteph claims victory in retaining his seat in the 8th Senate District at the Republican victory party in Virginia Beach, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Bill DeSteph claims victory in retaining his seat in the 8th Senate District at the Republican victory party in Virginia Beach, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP) (AP/Steve Earley)
A mobile billboard urges voters to cast ballots for Democrats outside Centreville High School in Clifton, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)
A mobile billboard urges voters to cast ballots for Democrats outside Centreville High School in Clifton, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Matthew Barakat)
Candidate for the 94th District, Shelly Simonds,  delivers a speech to supporters Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, at the Marriott in Newport News, Va. (Rob Ostermaier/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Candidate for the 94th District, Shelly Simonds, delivers a speech to supporters Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, at the Marriott in Newport News, Va. (Rob Ostermaier/The Virginian-Pilot via AP) (AP/Rob Ostermaier)
Candidate for the 94th District, Shelly Simonds, celebrates with supporters as election results begin to come in Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, at the Marriott in Newport News, Va. (Rob Ostermaier/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Candidate for the 94th District, Shelly Simonds, celebrates with supporters as election results begin to come in Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, at the Marriott in Newport News, Va. (Rob Ostermaier/The Virginian-Pilot via AP) (AP/Rob Ostermaier)
Voters line up to get ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters line up to get ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP/Steve Helber)
Democratic vote trackers man the war room as they monitor election results in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (AP/Steve Helber)
Democratic supporters cheer at their party in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Democratic supporters cheer at their party in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (AP/Steve Helber)
Voters make their way into the polling location at Abingdon High School Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 in Abingdon, Va. Along with the statewide races, voters in Washington County are voting on a new sheriff and a resolution concerning the future of their historic courthouse. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)
Voters make their way into the polling location at Abingdon High School Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 in Abingdon, Va. (AP/David Crigger)
Asher Artis, 3, waits for his grandfather, Keith Smith, to finish filling out his ballot at The Kroc Center Hampton Roads, a polling location in Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.  (Sarah Holm/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Asher Artis, 3, waits for his grandfather, Keith Smith, to finish filling out his ballot at The Kroc Center Hampton Roads, a polling location in Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Sarah Holm)
Declan Brady peeks under the voting booth while his grandmother Darlene Walker votes at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Declan Brady peeks under the voting booth while his grandmother Darlene Walker votes at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Mike Morones)
A voter grabs a pen to fill out her paper ballot at Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch Library, a polling location in Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Sarah Holm)
Virginia voters head to the polls at Nottingham Elementary School on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)
Virginia voters exit a polling station at Nottingham Elementary School on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)
Chief Election Official Sandy Pace wears her patriotic-themed boots while staffing the polling station at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Chief Election Official Sandy Pace wears her patriotic-themed boots while staffing the polling station at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Mike Morones)
Amy Laufer, Democratic candidate for Virginia State Senate, greets voters on Election Day in Fredericksburg, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Amy Laufer, Democratic candidate for Virginia State Senate, greets voters on Election Day in Fredericksburg, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Mike Morones)
Voters move in and out of the polling station at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Voters move in and out of the polling station at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Mike Morones)
State Sen. Bryce Reeves greets voters outside Smith Station Elementary School on Election Day in Spotsylvania, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
State Sen. Bryce Reeves greets voters outside Smith Station Elementary School on Election Day in Spotsylvania, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP/Mike Morones)
Voters caste their ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters caste their ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP/Steve Helber)
Voters line up to get ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters line up to get ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP/Steve Helber)
Voters walk through a sea of campaign signs at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters walk through a sea of campaign signs at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP/Steve Helber)
Voters walk through a sea of campaign signs at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters walk through a sea of campaign signs at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP/Steve Helber)
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Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, House District 2, is congratulated by supporters during a Democratic Party watch event at Hyatt Place Virginia Beach Town Center, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Virginia Beach, Va. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Bill DeSteph claims victory in retaining his seat in the 8th Senate District at the Republican victory party in Virginia Beach, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
A mobile billboard urges voters to cast ballots for Democrats outside Centreville High School in Clifton, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)
Candidate for the 94th District, Shelly Simonds,  delivers a speech to supporters Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, at the Marriott in Newport News, Va. (Rob Ostermaier/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Candidate for the 94th District, Shelly Simonds, celebrates with supporters as election results begin to come in Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, at the Marriott in Newport News, Va. (Rob Ostermaier/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Voters line up to get ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Democratic supporters cheer at their party in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters make their way into the polling location at Abingdon High School Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 in Abingdon, Va. Along with the statewide races, voters in Washington County are voting on a new sheriff and a resolution concerning the future of their historic courthouse. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)
Asher Artis, 3, waits for his grandfather, Keith Smith, to finish filling out his ballot at The Kroc Center Hampton Roads, a polling location in Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.  (Sarah Holm/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Declan Brady peeks under the voting booth while his grandmother Darlene Walker votes at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Chief Election Official Sandy Pace wears her patriotic-themed boots while staffing the polling station at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Amy Laufer, Democratic candidate for Virginia State Senate, greets voters on Election Day in Fredericksburg, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Voters move in and out of the polling station at Drew Middle School on Election Day in Stafford, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
State Sen. Bryce Reeves greets voters outside Smith Station Elementary School on Election Day in Spotsylvania, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Voters caste their ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters line up to get ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters walk through a sea of campaign signs at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Voters walk through a sea of campaign signs at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate are up for election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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