Some of Northern Virginia’s top prosecutors will face a pivotal challenge this June as they confront Democratic primary opponents who present themselves as superior reformers.
Incumbents Steve Descano, Buta Biberaj and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti must convince Democratic voters that their first terms in office have delivered on the reformist pledges they campaigned on. They’re poised to address growing concerns about crime, allegations of mismanagement and a Democratic base galvanized by the overturning of Roe v. Wade a year ago.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, told The Associated Press he cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the primaries, which make up a relatively small segment of the electorate.
Still, he acknowledged that voters rejecting reform incumbents would be significant and serve as a “warning sign” for the broader Democratic Party.
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On her website, Buta Biberaj said she pursued the position of top prosecutor with a philosophy emphasizing value-centric, fair and appropriate consequences for lawbreakers.
Her campaign’s three pillars — prevention, protection and prosecution — position her as an advocate for deterring individuals from delinquency. She supports diversionary programs and opportunities in mentorship, education and employment.
Biberaj identifies drug addiction, homelessness and job insecurity as Loudoun County’s most pressing challenges. She plans to address them by collaborating with community support groups and nonprofit organizations to increase the number of residents and families in stable employment.
Earlier this year, her office announced a shift in its prosecutorial focus away from pursuing certain misdemeanors, such as low-level traffic offenses, to dedicate those resources to prosecuting violent crimes such as rape, robbery and domestic abuse.
She considers her accomplishments to include a court program assisting veterans with substance abuse or mental health issues, and a decrease in violent crime across the county post-2019, despite an overall uptick throughout Virginia.
Biberaj cited a case early in her tenure, involving a homeless veteran who was repeatedly caught stealing food, as an example of her approach to prosecutions and societal change.
“Can we prosecute him and make him a felon? Yes, we can. The facts would be there,” she told WTOP. “But what harm would we be causing him and the community if we did that? We would not have been solving the problem as to why he was stealing, why he was homeless.”
Biberaj’s four-year tenure as top prosecutor has seen its share of controversy. Amid the ongoing culture war, Biberaj and other Loudoun County prosecutors have been criticized as lenient on crime by the state’s Republican leadership, mainly Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares.
She also faces a primary challenge from fellow Democrat and defense attorney Elizabeth Lancaster, who alleges that mismanagement has undermined Biberaj’s reform aspirations.
After more than a decade as a public defender, Democratic challenger Elizabeth Lancaster states on her website that she is eyeing Biberaj’s job “to seek justice by zealously protecting the rights of the accused and the dignity of victims with equity, transparency, and purpose.”
In an interview with WTOP, Lancaster attributed a high turnover rate within Biberaj’s office, prematurely dismissed cases, and glaring errors to “incompetence and mismanagement.”
Lancaster presents herself as a consensus builder whose prior experience forging relationships among judges, law enforcement, probation officers and prosecutors would allow her to effectively deliver reform and justice where her opponent could not.
“When the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office fails as a business, there are real consequences. People die, accessory to murder charges are dismissed, abduction charges are dismissed, rape charges are dismissed,” Lancaster said.
“Then you’re violating a defendant’s civil rights; the victim has no recourse. You’re bringing shame onto that office and to the community, and you’re making the community less safe.”
Lancaster described the current state of affairs as a collection of agencies siloed off from each other, and whose lack of interoffice coordination invariably harms victims of crimes.
If elected, she said she plans to foster cooperation among the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, law enforcement agencies, probation offices and the county’s schools to prevent the kind of mistakes blamed for the erroneous release of a murder suspect last year.
“First and foremost, it’s going to be repairing relationships, and building a team in that office that truly believes in a mission and wants to be there. I gotta get prosecutors who want to be there and do a good job,” she said. “When you’re running an office with over 100% turnover, new people every day, you’re not enacting any kind of change. You’re just trying to clean up the pieces.”
Since being elected Fairfax County’s lead prosecutor on a progressive platform three-and-a-half years ago, Steve Descano has taken steps to mitigate gun violence and eliminate prosecution bias. His strategy centers on promoting “diversion programs,” providing services instead of jail time for individuals accused of nonviolent crimes.
He has also established a Red Flag Law team aimed at preventing potentially harmful individuals from possessing firearms.
If reelected for a second term, Descano plans to maintain his current trajectory. In a WTOP interview, Descano voiced his commitment to dismantling economic and racial disparities within the criminal justice system, a goal he’s already pursued by abolishing cash bail and initiating a data collection program designed to more accurately measure biases in local courts.
Descano said his accomplishments include programs to help people address mental health concerns and drug addiction, in addition to reducing the county’s jail population by around 12%.
He also identifies as a staunch supporter of abortion rights. Viewing a potential ban in Virginia by a Republican-dominated state legislature as a community threat and a precursor to an invasive police state, Descano has repeatedly pledged not to prosecute individuals for obtaining abortions.
He has attacked his opponent, Ed Nuttall, as a “Republican wolf in a Democrat’s clothing” who refuses to support reproductive freedom — a claim that Nuttall denies.
“What people have to understand is that to enforce one of those laws, police would need to investigate every single miscarriage. They’d be pulling in people’s intimate partners and interviewing them, they’d be getting search warrants for their emails or their cellphone records,” Descano said.
“I think the people of Fairfax County deserve to know that if there’s a world where these laws are passed, they’re going to have a chief law enforcement officer that sees the world the way they do, in accordance with their values, and is not going to prosecute women for exercising their reproductive freedom.”
With 26 years of experience as a trial lawyer, Ed Nuttall believes he has the expertise to boost the office’s felony conviction rate. “It takes a trial lawyer to manage trial lawyers,” his campaign biography states. In his view, Descano’s time in office has been a “dumpster fire” riddled with inexperienced staff, mishandled cases and poor judgment.
Nuttall listed three major issues in Fairfax County: Bad management of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, increasing crime rates and declining prosecutions.
He attributed the low conviction rate in part to inexperienced prosecutors who lack the skills to effectively handle felony jury trials. Under his leadership, Nuttall said he would seek to provide better training for the office’s prosecutors, hiring an experienced trial attorney to guide and support younger staff.
Nuttall argued that Descano’s mismanagement has compromised the office’s ability to prosecute and collaborate with other elements of the criminal justice system crucial to fulfilling prosecutorial duties.
His website lists six reforms meant to “get the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office working again,” while adhering to progressive principles, including modifying discovery protocols to prevent crucial information from falling through the cracks, and creating a victim services liaison role to ensure that victims of violent crimes are adequately heard.
Nuttall said he also hopes to mend the strained relationship between the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement, which he claims Descano has damaged with an “us-versus-them” mentality.
“I’m going to reestablish the relationship between law enforcement and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. That relationship is essential to prosecuting serious felonies,” Nuttall said. “You need to have detectives and the officers in the office talking about cases, working with witnesses, fostering a cooperative relationship to build a case to take to trial. From what I understand, from both prosecutors who were there and from police officers, that is not currently the case.”
Like other Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Northern Virginia, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a former public defender, was elected based on a reform-minded platform that aimed to reduce her jurisdiction’s incarceration rate, emphasize diversionary programs to deter residents from criminal activity and prioritize mental health treatment.
“There’s two sides to the mental health issue,” Dehghani-Tafti explained. “Folks who have serious mental illness are more likely to be victimized and to be defendants, but also that when people are defendants, the most significant way to ensure that they don’t become involved in a revolving door of our judicial system and our criminal system is to interrupt that cycle by providing treatment.”
Since assuming office, she has spearheaded several significant initiatives, including a successful campaign to end cash bail, the creation of a mental health docket, the expansion of Arlington’s drug court program, and a reduction in Arlington County’s prison population by nearly a third.
In a conversation with WTOP, Dehghani-Tafti described her platform as striving for a balance between ensuring justice for the accused and maintaining safety for the community.
Her establishment of a behavioral health docket and a higher conviction rate compared to her predecessor earned her the sole endorsement from the Washington Post editorial board for a sitting Commonwealth’s Attorney in Northern Virginia.
Dehghani-Tafti’s office referred to a $340,000 grant from the Justice Department as a “game-changer” that would enable investment in justice reform initiatives. Last year, she introduced the Heart of Safety program, providing a platform for victims and perpetrators to agree on a restoration plan with a trained facilitator.
Her office promoted it as an alternative to traditional prosecution in certain misdemeanor and felony cases, as well as the county’s “first restorative justice diversion program for youth and young adults.”
For her second term, Dehghani-Tafti plans to focus on reducing gun violence in Arlington. She wants to deepen collaboration with gun reform advocates Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign. Her plans include introducing violence interruption training to Arlington, initiating a gun buyback program, and providing financial assistance for victims.
She also aims to increase rehabilitative work, expand mental health resources and establish a restitution fund for victims.
“Oftentimes, what happens is when victims have something, when they’re owed money for something that they lost, or where they’re owed money for insurance, deductibles, and that sort of thing, it takes a long time for the defendant to be able to pay anything,” she said.
“The victims then are left without having the funds that they need when they need it. I would love to create a restitution fund so that victims can get what they need when they need it, and then defendants can pay into that fund later.”
Josh Katcher spent over a decade working in the local Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, first as an intern, before being hired full-time. But he resigned from the office last year due to disagreements with its management and direction under incumbent Dehghani-Tafti.
Like Dehghani-Tafti, Katcher presents himself as a reformer with the insight and experience to manage a modern prosecutor’s office. However, Katcher said he fears that a perception of excessive leniency might undermine the credibility of reform prosecution, causing the county to be seen as a “soft target” for violent crimes such as armed carjackings.
“Reform prosecution was never about leniency. It was about precision and the way that we apply the resources given to us,” he said.
“That’s why a prosecutor who believes in reform the way that I do can look at a voter with a straight face and say, ‘Yes, there are certain types of cases we absolutely believe need to be prosecuted.’ I think we’re failing to deliver on that promise, and my concern is that a failed execution might be misinterpreted as a failed philosophy.”
Katcher worries that mounting vacancies in the office will lead to a “cascading effect,” in which less experienced prosecutors are assigned increasingly complex cases. He wants to better equip the local justice system with “off-ramps” for cases resulting from what he terms “external policy failures,” such as those related to mental illness, drug addiction or homelessness.
In interviews and on his website, Katcher emphasizes rising crime rates, expressing dissatisfaction with Dehghani-Tafti’s approach to acknowledging the issue and promising to take more action to address it. His top campaign priorities include rebuilding the office, providing transparency on crime data and tackling the rise in crime.
“My opponent seems unwilling to acknowledge rising crime, and until we acknowledge something, we can’t begin to address it,” Katcher said.
“There are legitimate policy implications of being unwilling to acknowledge rising crime. If, for example, you were sitting with the county board, or you’re sitting with the school board, and they’re asking questions, and there is not an acknowledgment that certain types of things are happening, then they’re going to be making their decisions in a bad vacuum for our community.”
WTOP’s Nick Iannelli and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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