At least three elected prosecutors in Northern Virginia this year are facing opponents promising new approaches to criminal law. Contests are underway in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties, while observers watch to see what happens in Prince William County, where a 50-year veteran approaches the end of his 13th term.
(A challenger has announced in Prince William – Story here.)
The announced challengers uniformly speak of a more progressive approach to law enforcement, including cutting the use of cash bail, limiting marijuana prosecution and refusing to seek the death penalty. They hope to repeat the success of Scott Miles, a reform-minded former defense attorney who this past November defeated a veteran prosecutor for the commonwealth’s attorney post in Chesterfield County.
Incumbents point to their own reforms and innovations, while reminding voters that their job is an element of the state’s law-and-order structure governed by state statutes.
Party politics could be a factor. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe injected an element of political revenge into one primary contest on Jan. 6, endorsing the challenger to Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos while criticizing Stamos for her opposition to his felon voting rights restoration plan.
Stamos is opposed by Parisa Tafti, legal director of the Georgetown University law school’s Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and a former Washington public defender.
She says her work as a defense attorney made her into a crusader against “mass incarceration.”
“The American criminal justice system is now a mass incarceration machine set on auto-pilot,” Tafti said in a Dec. 10 Facebook post announcing her candidacy.
“As a public defender, I know all too well how this machine dismantles communities, destroys families, uses bad science, and wastes money…. It disproportionately catches in its gears Black & Latino people, the poor, kids, and those who suffer from mental illness or addiction,” Tafti wrote.
“I’m offering an alternative,” she wrote Dec. 26. “I want to dismantle the mass incarceration machine and replace it with policies that pursue justice, increase accountability, prevent crime, prioritize serious crimes, and protect civil rights.”
Tafti said Stamos is “out of step with Arlington values.”
In a Jan. 10 interview, Tafti pointed to “thousands” of misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions in Arlington, despite a national trend toward legalization and exacerbation of already existing racial disparities.
Stamos’s recent announcement to limit requests for cash bail was “a day late and a dollar short,” according to Tafti. Tafti said Stamos’ announced plan would have little real effect.
Stamos defended her three-decade record in a statement, pointing to her work to protect crime victims.
‘It’s striking that the word ‘victim’ is not mentioned once in Ms. Tafti’s announcement,” Stamos wrote.
“As commonwealth’s attorney for the past seven years, I have taken the lead in bringing about meaningful reform while ensuring that the core mission of my office remains unchanged – and that is the principled prosecution of criminal defendants and the vigorous protection of victims’ rights,” Stamos said.
“Not only do I not support mass incarceration, I know no prosecutor who does. Every person who is prosecuted by my office is an individual with a name, a family and a story to tell and a crime they have committed for which they are held accountable,” Stamos said.
Stamos was among a handful of Democratic commonwealth’s attorneys who signed a friend-of-the-court brief saying McAuliffe’s 2016 blanket restoration plan made no distinction among felons, hindering prosecutors’ ability to discharge their duties.
“Why would you ever sue a Democratic governor for trying to restore rights?” McAuliffe said in remarks recorded and posted on a political news website. McAuliffe said he would do “anything to possibly help” elect Tafti.
The Tafti campaign trumpeted the ex-governor’s endorsement as “big news” on Twitter.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh is another incumbent with a more than 30-year record as a prosecutor.
Morrogh is being targeted by former federal prosecutor Stephen T. Descano Jr.
Descano labels himself “progressive” and “reformer” on his Twitter home page. He is currently CEO and general counsel at an autism services company.
Morrogh objects to the criticism that he has not been a progressive prosecutor. He points to his record, including support for problem-solving courts and raising the felony threshold.
“I was progressive when progressive wasn’t cool,” he quipped.
He pointed to a “robust” supervised release program and limited use of cash bail.
“You have to do a fairly serious crime in Fairfax to end up in jail,” Morrogh said.
Morrogh is another Democratic prosecutor who bucked McAuliffe when Republicans went to court to undo his sweeping felon rights restoration plan.
He said he regrets taking a stand against his party’s leader, but was concerned that sex offenders and violent criminals could end up being called to serve on juries. McAuliffe’s restoration plan swept too broadly, Morrogh said.
“My objection was more the manner in which it was done,” he said.
Democratic primaries in Arlington and Fairfax take place June 11.
In Loudoun County, the contest will be decided in the fall. Republican incumbent Jim Plowman faces a challenge from Democratic attorney Buta Biberaj.
Biberaj also seeks change in the approach of the prosecutor’s office.
“The current culture is one of celebrating and rewarding convictions and obtaining long sentences for non-violent crimes rather than making sure that justice is done,” Biberaj said on her campaign’s Facebook page. “I will reverse this culture by seeking justice for victims, reducing racial disparity, supporting strategic litigation, offering treatment, education and job training to low-level offenders rather than jail time.”
Biberaj has been a lawyer for more than 25 years and has served as a substitute judge.
But Plowman has his own achievements to cite. He is supporting a plan to restart the Loudoun County drug court this year. A previous effort was allowed to lapse in 2012.
Plowman said a mental health docket is going strong and many juvenile offenders are diverted from the criminal justice process. Asked whether he considers himself “progressive,” Plowman said, “I would prefer someone look at what we’re doing and make their own assessment.”
Prince William County
Many expect a contest in Prince William County, but the state’s longest serving commonwealth’s attorney is keeping his cards close to the vest. Ebert, in his eighties, said he would have an announcement next month about whether he will run for a 14th term.
Like Morrogh and Stamos, Ebert is a Democrat who opposed the McAuliffe felon restoration plan. McAuliffe’s office did not respond to an inquiry about whether the former governor plans to take a position in any race other than that in Arlington.
Other prosecutors are signaling their own reform initiatives. Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter announced Jan. 3 that his staff no longer will recommend cash bail in any misdemeanor case.
Porter said he is waiting with interest for a report on the Virginia pretrial process being prepared by the state Crime Commission.
“I will consider additional changes to our bail practices after this report is released,” Porter said.
Porter also announced his management role in a substance abuse treatment court being planned by Alexandria officials. The special docket is expected to launch in March.
Updated Jan. 14 to add Ebert comment.