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Va. prosecutor often sought violent suspects’ detention and didn’t get it, data shows

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano (D) released a dashboard of data showing his office’s bond recommendations and judges’ decisions

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano, right, and Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Kyle Manikas speak to reporters. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article misstated when Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano decided to stop participating in many misdemeanor cases. It was two years ago, not last summer. The article has been corrected.

Fairfax County’s top prosecutor, who has faced criticism for practices some view as too lenient, released data Wednesday showing that his office recommended people accused of violent crimes be denied bail at 76 percent of hearings but that judges did so only about half the time.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano (D) said Wednesday that his office released the bond data dashboard to increase transparency and identify disparities in local criminal justice.

“You can't fix what you don't measure,” Descano said Wednesday. “You can’t address and find things anecdotally. We're actively trying to be part of the solution to build a better system — and data is a big part of that.”

The dashboard shows that Fairfax prosecutors recommended that people charged with violent felony crimes be denied bail in 76 percent of bond review hearings. But judges only ordered suspects detained in 48 percent of such hearings, according to the dashboard.

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Fairfax prosecutors under Descano do not request cash bail, saying it exacerbates socioeconomic disparities. Judges ordered cash bail releases for people accused of violent felony crimes in 10 percent of hearings, the dashboard shows.

Alisa Padden, public relations director for the Supreme Court of Virginia, said the commonwealth’s judicial department could not provide insight on the data’s findings.

“Upon review, it appears that the data in the dashboard was collected by the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney and did not originate with the Office of the Executive Secretary,” Padden said Wednesday. “This office is not able to provide insight into the data collected and maintained by the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.”

Sean Kennedy, president of Virginians for Safe Communities, a local nonprofit that has launched a recall campaign against Descano and other progressive county prosecutors, said he thought the dashboard could be misleading. Kennedy said Descano’s office should give the public the underlying information they used to compile the data.

“I support all forms of criminal justice transparency,” Kennedy said. “I think that’s very important. But the raw data needs to be made available so that other people can analyze it.”

Descano has faced pushback for practices his critics consider to be too lenient — like his decision two years ago to stop participating in many misdemeanor cases, which he said was necessary for a time because his office was underfunded and needed to preserve staff for more serious cases.

The data in the dashboard is limited, representing just 802 defendants over a span of 1,118 hearings between Jan. 3 and June 30 this year. In a message announcing the dashboard, Descano wrote that it reflected “a small minority of cases handled by our office” — only those cases that had a bond review hearing, where a prosecutor and defense attorney would argue about a suspect’s release.

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The data shows that in many types of cases, judges released suspects more often than Descano’s prosecutors recommended it. In felony sex crimes, for example, Descano’s office requested people be held without bail in 89 percent of hearings; judges did so in just 52 percent of hearings, though they also ordered cash bond releases in about 9 percent of hearings.

Descano said the data showed that his office needed to reevaluate its detention recommendations for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. His office recommended such defendants be detained at 47 hearings, or 23 percent of the time, but the court ruled defendants be detained at 38 hearings, or 18 percent of the time. The court also granted cash bonds after 18 nonviolent misdemeanor hearings, or 9 percent of the time.

Dawn Butorac, the Fairfax County public defender, said she was pleased with the prosecutor’s transparency — but troubled by the data on nonviolent misdemeanors.

“Our judges are more progressive than a progressive prosecutor’s office,” she said.

Bail recommendations are a balancing act, Descano said. He said his office does not want to recommend people who pose a safety risk be released, but Fairfax prosecutors should not unnecessarily recommend people be denied bail.

“Jail has a criminogenic effect because of loss of contact, loss of jobs, loss of housing — all these things that actually creates recidivism down the road,” Descano said.

Fairfax County prosecutor to use data to help root out disparities in justice system

The dashboard comes after Descano announced in June 2021 his efforts to increase transparency through data. Jaime Michel, the office’s data director, said it took about a year to put the dashboard together and clean the data.

Michel also said in a news release that the dashboard will help Fairfax prosecutor’s evaluate their decision-making in bond cases.

“Ultimately, we aim to use data to evaluate our decision-making at every point of discretion in the legal process to effectively and equitably serve the community,” Michel said.

The data offers some accounting of race in the criminal justice system, but it is limited. Black people made up 37 percent of defendants from the county, the dashboard shows, though they only account for about 9 percent of the county population. Latinos account for 32 percent of the defendants, and 25 percent of defendants are White, the dashboard shows.

Diane Burkley Alejandro, lead advocate of the ACLU People Power Fairfax, said she hoped the dashboard would offer more specificity about race and bond decisions.

“While the dashboard does a good job of breaking out bond decisions by severity of the crime, at this point it falls short in providing the race/ethnicity breakout needed to assess disparity,” Burkley Alejandro said Wednesday. “This information should also be provided for charging decisions and other case dispositions in addition to bond decisions.”

Descano said his office will keep updating the dashboard as more case information becomes available.