The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arlington prosecutor promises data-driven reduction in racial disparities

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the commonwealth’s attorney for Arlington County, speaks at an event at the Center for American Progress. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that Elizabeth Jones Valderrama grew up in a majority-White neighborhood and now lives in a majority-Black one. She grew up in a majority-Black neighborhood and now lives in a majority-White one. The article has been corrected.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has partnered with a nonprofit group in an effort to quantify and reduce racial disparities in the county’s criminal justice system.

The New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which advocates for lower incarceration rates, will work with prosecutors to examine data on charges and convictions and find ways to reduce the incarceration of Black people.

The commitment comes with a specific target — a 20 percent reduction in “the racial disparities in prosecution,” according to a news release. But Vera and Dehghani-Tafti are still working to define how that gap will be measured and to lay out a plan for narrowing it.

“It’s a soft science,” said Jamila Hodge, a former D.C. federal prosecutor who runs the Vera Institute program. The office could focus on reducing the gap between Black and White defendants for specific categories of crime, or for admission to certain diversion programs; it depends, she said, on where the group’s analysis finds the biggest disparities.

The premise, she said, is that based on national data, it is clear Black defendants face worse outcomes than White ones in similar cases.

Dehghani-Tafti says she is confident those disparities exist locally as well, in part based on an analysis done for her office by Arizona State University professor Jon Gould. Looking at Arlington from 2017 to 2018, Gould found that 48 percent of people charged with a crime in Arlington were Black, while 40 percent were White.

“We want to address . . . the way the system cements racial and economic divides,” Dehghani-Tafti said, “but we want to do it in a way that enhances public safety. The whole principle of what I stand for is that justice and safety are not two separate things.”

Dehghani-Tafti has already stopped prosecuting possession of small amounts of marijuana, amid some pushback from judges. (Simple marijuana possession becomes legal in Virginia in July, but not for juveniles or while driving).

Gould found that Black people in Arlington were initially likely to face much harsher charges than White people but that the gap narrowed significantly by sentencing.

That narrowing is “unusual,” Gould said, “but there is still disparity there, and we don’t know why exactly that exists.”

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In 2019, according to the police, more than half the people arrested in Arlington were Black; only about 10 percent of the county population is Black. The department has argued that it’s “problematic” to look at the data that way, because most people arrested in Arlington don’t live in the county. However, Black Arlington residents are still more likely to be arrested than White ones.

Dehghani-Tafti said the data gathered in the project would eventually be made public.

Arlington officials have separately been working on police revisions, including changes to traffic enforcement aimed at reducing racial disparities in arrests, as well as a restorative justice program in which victims and offenders resolve disputes through face-to-face meetings instead of the legal process.

That program is set to launch by the end of the year, starting with 16- to 24-year-olds accused of committing crimes against other people.

“Our police department is . . . trying to do everything in service of public safety,” said Kimiko Lighty, who is coordinating the project. But, she said, “the way we think about what public safety looks like,” locally and nationally, “doesn’t necessarily . . . meet the needs of the people who were harmed.”

Andy Penn, the acting chief of police, said in a statement that the partnership between prosecutors and Vera “will ensure a holistic review of Arlington’s criminal justice system.”

Theo Stamos, who served as Arlington’s chief prosecutor until losing a primary to Dehghani-Tafti in 2019, said she never looked at race in her decisions. Doing so, she said, “is an odious practice that makes a mockery of blind justice and corrodes confidence in the criminal justice system.”

While it’s “lamentable” that Black people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, she said, the problem can’t be fixed in the prosecutor’s office: “That’s a huge discussion, and it starts somewhere else.”

Elizabeth Jones Valderrama, executive director of the Arlington nonprofit Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), disagrees. The spouse of a police officer, she says she sees not just “systemic racism” but “individual racism” at every point in the criminal justice process, from arrest to sentencing.

OAR is partnering with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office on the Vera Institute process.

The wealthier White people she lives near get away with minor crimes, while the lower-income Black people she grew up around are constantly monitored by police, she said, and gestures from Black people may be interpreted as threatening when the same movements by White people aren’t.

“If we could find ways to not incarcerate Black people as we do with White people, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now,” she said.

She also sees the systemic problem in her work. For example, she said, she had two teenagers assigned the same community service; the White one could work at a family friend’s nonprofit, while the Black one couldn’t afford to get to a job site.

She suggested the court should consider having participation in therapy or classes, conveniently located for defendants, count as community service.

Using criminal history to disqualify people from diversionary programs also leads to imbalances, she said, because Black people are more likely to have contact with police.

“I went to the University of Virginia, and the amount of drugs and alcohol going on at UVA is unbelievable, and yet most of my classmates came out with a completely clean record,” she said. “But when you live in [majority Black] communities, it’s more likely that you’re going to be stopped for something.”

Hodge said efforts to reduce incarceration rates that don’t specifically include race can end up exacerbating racial divides, with Black defendants less likely to be given alternatives to incarceration.

“I just think it speaks to the deeply really racist nature of our system,” Hodge said. “There is an association of dangerousness that just attaches with black skin.”

The Reshaping Prosecution Program includes 10 sessions of training and workshops on how prosecutors’ decisions impact communities of color. It includes a grant to OAR, which Jones Valderrama plans to use to hire a new staff member.

While Hodge said the project is “rooted in how the system has impacted Black people,” jurisdictions where other marginalized groups are prevalent might have broader targets.

Dehghani-Tafti said she hoped to collect and analyze prosecutions not just by race but also by income, Zip code and other factors. She said she was starting with limited information and thus focused on the divide between Black defendants and everyone else.

Prosecutors in Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota have announced similar partnerships with Vera.

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