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Opinion Jason Miyares’s harmful attack on Virginia’s criminal justice reform

A police car is parked outside as people visit Mosaic Shopping Center Mall on Oct. 30 Fairfax. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
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Steve Descano is the commonwealth’s attorney of the City of Fairfax and Fairfax County.

There’s no doubt that Democrats being swept out of statewide office in last week’s election was a shock to many and represents a threat to the progress our commonwealth has made over the past two years. Unfortunately, the fallout from last Tuesday’s election is already being felt in the form of attacks from the highest echelons of state government on Virginia’s criminal justice reform movement.

In the first press conference of his transition, Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares (R) wasted no time in shamefully using victims of crime as political pawns. He vowed to radically upend Virginia’s justice system by stripping power from locally elected prosecutors and giving it directly to his office.

With the backing of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R), Miyares is targeting reform-minded commonwealth’s attorneys, “particularly in Northern Virginia,” by pushing for legislation that would empower police chiefs to call in the attorney general to handle local prosecutions instead of the jurisdiction’s duly-elected commonwealth’s attorney. Such a plan would give police officers the power to ignore the will of the community members they’re meant to serve, vest prosecutorial discretion in the hands of non-attorneys untrained in prosecution, and undermine the ability of the justice system to hold law enforcement accountable when necessary.

Let’s be clear: Criminal justice reform is what Virginians want. Reform prosecutors were elected by voters across the commonwealth because people understand that we don’t have to choose between justice and safety. They’ve seen that the tough-on-crime approach of the “law and order” era was a failure that harmed Virginia families, dramatically exacerbated racial and socioeconomic disparities and didn’t lead to safer communities. Polling shows that the same voters who elected these prosecutors in 2019 continue to support the criminal justice reform policies being enacted in their communities.

Thoughtfully enacting these types of reforms is a painstaking and delicate process. My office has dozens of trained prosecutors who have spent years honing their craft. They’re guided by policies based on research and data and aimed at generating the best community safety outcomes. I’ve worked diligently with Fairfax stakeholders to build programs aimed at alleviating root causes of crime, such as mental health and substance abuse issues. We take this approach because my team understands that the justice system is most effective when it reflects the values of the local community and is run by local actors who are responsive to our community’s unique needs. Allowing individuals who aren’t trained in prosecution to invite an outside actor who isn’t familiar with — and is, in fact, antagonistic toward — Fairfax’s values to do the work community members elected someone else to do would reverse this delicate progress.

Another fundamental element of an effective criminal justice system is fostering confidence across diverse communities that improper policing will result in accountability. One of the most significant responsibilities of commonwealth’s attorneys is to hold officers accountable when they fail the community they’re sworn to serve. Whether that’s putting an officer on the “Brady List” and refusing to use them as a witness because of truthfulness issues or prosecuting officers for excessive force, it’s the duty of the commonwealth’s attorney to ensure bad policing results in consequences. Even when the police departments in question are extremely professional, such as the law enforcement agencies that serve Fairfax, the legitimacy of the system requires a commonwealth’s attorney who is fully empowered to ensure accountability. Allowing police officers to selectively sideline the commonwealth’s attorney undermines both the accountability on which the system depends and the confidence of the community necessary to maintain the system’s credibility.

The only reason the attorney general-elect would push such an ill-conceived plan is to serve his narrow political interests. In his campaign, Miyares talked incessantly about his background as a prosecutor, so he undoubtedly knows that his proposal is radical and unprecedented. Even with the campaign now in the rearview mirror, Miyares simply must care more about scoring political points with national Trump loyalists, the Fraternal Order of Police and other far-right extremists than he does about community safety. Regardless, my office will continue to build a system that treats all of our neighbors fairly and keeps our communities safe. If the attorney general-elect wants to stand in the way of that progress, he’ll have to confront a movement that is stronger than he realizes.