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

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano speaks at a news conference in 2020.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano speaks at a news conference in 2020. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Fairfax County’s top prosecutor will begin publishing data on prosecutions in an effort to identify and root out any racial and socioeconomic disparities in the local criminal justice system, he announced this week.

The Office of Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano will collect a range of data on race, charging, sentencing, bail decisions, plea offers and other metrics and eventually make them publicly available on a website. The effort is a partnership with academics and an advocacy group.

No date has been set when the first data will be available, but Descano said it will be released as it becomes available.

Descano was among a trio of local prosecutors elected in 2019 on a liberal platform of ameliorating unequal outcomes in the justice system and bringing greater transparency to how prosecutors’ offices operate.

“You can’t fix what you don’t measure,” Descano said. “I’ve heard from a lot of members of our community they don’t know what goes on inside this building and they don’t feel comfortable that they are going to get a fair shake.”

Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who also won office in 2019, announced a similar initiative in April. Both Dehghani-Tafti and Descano are working with the Vera Institute of Justice, which wants to reduce mass incarceration, on building out the data collection.

Dehghani-Tafti said her office is still working on assembling data in a way that makes it coherent for analysis.

“We’re building the plane while flying it, but we’re still building,” she said.

Dehghani-Tafti’s office has set a goal of reducing “racial disparities in prosecution” by 20 percent, but is still working out what that means in practice. Descano said he is pursuing a “holistic” approach to reducing disparities and has not set a specific goal.

Arlington prosecutor promises data-driven reduction in racial disparities

Loudoun County prosecutor Buta Biberaj is working with academics to establish a similar data-collection effort there.

Descano’s office had previously ended prosecutions for small amounts of marijuana and stopped asking for cash bail among other measures in efforts to reduce disparities in the justice system. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is now legal in Virginia.

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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