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In Northern Virginia, an ‘unprecedented’ chance to shape criminal justice

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Northern Virginia voters will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the criminal justice system next week, as they head to the polls to select successors to longtime prosecutors in some of the state’s most populous jurisdictions.

The races in Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties have become referendums on criminal justice reform on a variety of issues, including the death penalty, marijuana prosecutions and cooperation with immigration authorities.

Progressive Democrats in several of the races are promising wholesale changes to a system they view as excessively punitive and skewed against the poor and minorities, while their Republican and independent opponents are advocating a safety-first approach combined with measured reforms in some areas. The debate mirrors a larger one taking place across the country in recent years as concerns over mass incarceration and the justice system’s impact on minority communities has received greater attention.

In Virginia, the playing field is wide open. The incumbent commonwealth’s attorney in each race will not be on the ballot Tuesday because of successful primary challenges, a retirement and one prosecutor being named a judge. They had nearly 130 years of experience among them, so the elections will represent a changing of the guard.

“For all of these offices to be open at the same time is completely unprecedented,” said Democratic political consultant Ben Tribbett, who said the elections could reverberate across the state. “If the state legislature also flips to the Democrats, you are going to see lawmakers very receptive to the ideas put forward by some of the more progressive candidates for prosecutor. They could impact legislation.”

The most high-profile contested race is in Virginia’s largest county, Fairfax, where progressive Democrat Steve T. Descano is taking on independent Jonathan Fahey. Both are former federal prosecutors but have markedly different views about the direction of the office.

Descano wants to drop prosecutions for marijuana possession, charge fewer felonies, discontinue use of the death penalty and end cash bond among other proposals in a 22-page plan. He said syncing the office with the national push for criminal justice reform will bring it more in line with the values of a liberal county, like Fairfax.

“The office is not set up to meet the challenges of a growing Fairfax County,” Descano said. “It’s stuck in the past and not set up to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”

Descano, who is a former Army pilot, worked in tax enforcement for the Justice Department but has never handled prosecutions in state court. He has benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind contributions from Democratic megadonor George Soros in the primary and general election. He has the backing of high-profile Democrats locally and nationally.

Fahey has expressed admiration for the approach of the current prosecutor, Raymond F. Morrogh, who has pushed more moderate reforms and endorsed Fahey. Descano edged out Morrogh in the June Democratic primary.

Fahey said he would focus on the opioid crisis, gun prosecutions and gang activity. He said he also would build on county programs that divert the mentally ill, drug addicts and veterans from the justice system.

Fahey contrasts his own 19 years of experience in the U.S. attorney’s office and as an assistant prosecutor in Fairfax County with Descano’s shorter record. Fahey has been endorsed by the Republican Party in Fairfax County and all the major law enforcement unions.

“Steve Descano’s programs, lack of experience and philosophy will all make Fairfax County less safe,” Fahey said.

In Prince William County, former prosecutor and Democrat Amy Ashworth is squaring off against former county supervisor and Republican Mike May. They are vying to replace Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, who is retiring after more than 50 years.

Ashworth doesn’t label herself a progressive but is pushing liberal changes. She wants to go to a system where defendants are able to see all the evidence prosecutors have collected, which is called open-file discovery. She also supports the creation of a public defender’s office in Prince William, the largest county in Virginia that doesn’t have one.

“I want to restructure the [prosecutor’s] office to put the focus on the crimes that cause the most harm — violent crimes, domestic violence and making sure we pay attention to juvenile offenders . . . making sure they don’t graduate to the adult criminal justice system,” Ashworth said.

May said his top priority will be fighting crime.

“We’ve chosen Prince William County to raise our family because it’s a good community and a safe community,” May said. “We want to keep it that way, so that’s obviously the most important aspect to the commonwealth’s attorney.”

But May said he would also like to “modernize” the prosecutor’s office, including adding open-file discovery, making the hiring process for prosecutors more open and bringing more transparency to the budget.

One major point of disagreement between Ashworth and May is over Prince William County’s controversial 287 (g) program, which allows deputies at the county jail to act as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. May said the program helps keep the community safe, but Ashworth said it makes the undocumented less willing to report crime.

In Loudoun County, Democrat Buta Biberaj hopes to be among a progressive wave in Northern Virginia, as she vies to replace Republican James Plowman, who is stepping down to become a circuit court judge.

Biberaj has varied experience as a civil and criminal litigator for 25 years, substitute judge and guardian ad litem. Like Descano, her campaign has received a major boost from Soros in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind contributions.

Biberaj said she wants juries to know how much it will cost to incarcerate defendants before they hash out a sentence. She wants more victim assistance after cases are concluded and to beef up the office’s ability to tackle cybercrimes.

“I want to make sure we are working with our school system and law enforcement to make sure we are decreasing the number of kids who are referred to our court system,” Biberaj said.

Republican Nicole Wittmann, who has 26 years of experience as a prosecutor overall and 14 in Loudoun County, said she believes the prosecutor’s office is on the right track and would expand on some current programs, such as drug and mental-health courts.

“I would continue to do the things we’ve been doing. Crime is down 19 percent. We have one of the highest rates of juvenile diversion and deferment in the entire commonwealth of Virginia, while still maintaining the lowest recidivism rate,” Wittmann said. “I would also continue to be hard on violent crime.”

Wittmann said Biberaj’s experience as a prosecutor is thin and she would be beholden to Soros because he has been far and away her largest donor.

In Arlington, Democrat Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a former public defender and the legal director for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, is running unopposed Tuesday, after beating incumbent Theo Stamos in a hard-fought primary in June.

Like Descano and Biberaj, her campaign received a large infusion of cash from Soros. Dehghani-Tafti said she wants to focus on serious crimes that are often underreported, such as sexual assault, wage theft and elder abuse. She wants to make the office more transparent through data collection on prosecutions, provide fair discovery to the defense and establish a program that offers alternatives to jail time for low-level offenders.

“There is one belief that connects all reform prosecutors: that safety and justice are not opposite values and you cannot have one without the other,” Dehghani-Tafti said in a statement. “This principle will guide my priorities as Commonwealth’s Attorney.”

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