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Fairfax’s top prosecutor says staffing ‘crisis’ will hurt county’s ability to seek justice

Steve Descano, Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney, in 2019, before he took office. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Fairfax County’s top prosecutor said Tuesday that his office is facing a staffing “crisis” that will keep it from carrying out basic functions needed to put criminals in jail and ensure justice for victims unless many more prosecutors can be hired.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve T. Descano told a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors committee that staffing is so short, his office won’t be able to prosecute some lower-level crimes, properly review evidence, handle juvenile offenses or ensure cases are resolved in a timely fashion without approval of new positions.

Descano painted a bleak picture of the office’s ability to handle its workload, saying that its budget had been chronically underfunded for years and that his predecessor had misled county officials about the office’s ability to do the job with the resources it had while cutting corners.

Descano said that “quite frankly, potentially innocent people could be wrongly convicted, or dangerous people can be left on the street, making our community more vulnerable.”

Former Fairfax County prosecutor Raymond F. Morrogh did not respond to a request for comment on Descano’s characterization of the way he ran the office, but his top deputy and some county officials pushed back on it. Others expressed skepticism that the staffing issues were as dire as Descano made out, pointing to the county’s low crime rate.

“From my first day as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney until my last day as Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney we all worked tirelessly to serve the Fairfax County community,” Morrogh’s deputy, Casey Lingan, wrote in an email.

Descano was part of a wave of liberal prosecutors elected in November in Northern Virginia on ambitious platforms of stopping cash bail, dropping marijuana prosecutions, ending use of the death penalty and diverting more people from the justice system. Descano said the staffing crunch could affect that agenda.

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Descano marshaled a range of charts to make his case. One he created showed that Fairfax County invests $2.74 per resident in the prosecutor’s office, while neighboring Arlington spends $13.32 and Alexandria shells out $14.66. Another chart showed that overall funding for the Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney’s office was among the lowest of Virginia’s large jurisdictions.

In addition to the low funding, Descano said, his office must review hours of footage from police body cameras, adding a significant amount of time to case preparation.

Descano said his office, which has a staff of 45, would need to grow by 84 positions in the coming years to handle all cases other than non-DUI traffic violations.

The figures, which would require millions in additional funding, stunned the supervisors on the Public Safety Committee. Descano said his office could also make it through the rest of this fiscal year by adding 15 to 20 new positions. Trials in the county, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, are set to begin again in November.

“The numbers we are dealing with here are unprecedented,” said the Board of Supervisors’ chairman, Jeff C. McKay (D-At Large).

Supervisors also said the funding request comes at a time of significant uncertainty about the county’s budget. The pandemic, which caused tens of thousands of job losses in the region, has forced Fairfax officials to cut back on services in recent months, making the prospects of a substantial increase in funding for the prosecutor’s office uncertain.

Beginning in July, Descano’s office cut back on handling some misdemeanor cases as a way to deal with the staffing shortfall. Prosecutors are still handling DUIs, sexual battery and domestic assault cases but not some property crimes, quality-of-life offenses and a number others.

Descano said the move was necessary to free up prosecutors for more serious cases, but it has been unpopular with police officers who have been forced to handle many cases on their own.