Two reform-minded candidates defeated incumbent Commonwealths’ Attorney in the largest and 6th-largest counties in Virginia, as Steve Descano defeated incumbent Ray Morrough in Fairfax and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti defeated incumbent Theo Stamos in Arlington.
Readers may remember my round-up of criminal justice reform victories from the 2018 elections; in addition to highlighting important ballot initiatives and state Constitutional Amendments, I looked at localities where reformers defeated incumbent sheriffs and district attorneys.
There’s a simple reason to pay attention to these reformers. Criminal justice reform has always faced an uphill battle in legislatures across the country, as it’s far easier to claim to be “tough on crime” and slap on a new penalty or add to a mandatory minimum, the legislative equivalent of a drunk toddler playing with their parent’s pistol accidentally left on the nightstand. Much more difficult is the willingness of a government to lessen its power over citizens, even when that’s the responsible course of action. Of course, Republicans know all about this, as we’ve spent the better part of a decade preaching limited government values before today’s GOP said “screw it” and fully embraced the expansive powers of big government.
This is particularly an issue in Virginia, where legislators stuck 30 years in the past still embrace a “tough on crime” mentality and work to block even the most common-sense reforms, like increasing the felony threshold to track with inflation (or God forbid, raising it high enough to match a notoriously soft-on-crime state like Texas). It took until just this year for Virginia to finally stop suspending driver’s licenses for non-traffic related court costs (a brilliant law that deprives people of their ability to legally drive to work and earn money to pay off said costs), and even then 29 legislators still opposed it.
As a result, anybody in Virginia who is looking to limit the power of government, increase accountability and transparency, and fight for more just legal outcomes, is better spent working to elect reformer candidates as prosecutors than waiting around for the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee. That’s exactly what the voters of Fairfax and Arlington did.
Dehghani-Tafti is a former public defender and currently works at the Mid-Atlantic branch of one of my most favorite organizations in the country, the Innocence Project. This is a group that is in the trenches fighting the most extreme form of government oppression – the theft of liberty due to government incompetence, or worse, government maliciousness. Conservatives who thump their chests calling themselves “liberty-minded” should check them out and consider writing a check.
Hilariously, her opponent blasted her for having “never prosecuted a case”, trying to paint the picture of someone unfamiliar with the process or unequipped for the job. Instead, as a public defender and as someone who has fought to free those who are in jail, in part, due to incompetent or overzealous prosecutors, Dehghani-Tafti has been sitting at the other table as Mrs. Stamos all this time. The voters of Arlington felt it was a perspective worth having.
“Collecting and publishing data is absolutely essential for public accountability; for there to be accountability, there must be transparency; and for there to be transparency, the office must regularly release data to the public in a manner and format the public can readily understand and analyze.”
– Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, ACLU Questionnaire
Second, in her interview:
“The first thing I would like to do in the office is forward-looking. It’s to invite some of the organizations that do data-analysis to come in and look at what the office has been doing, and to collect data, and to share the data with the community so that we have a very clear sense of where we’ve been, and work with the organizations to figure out what are the best practices going forward for that office. Without committing to doing anything in particular based on those recommendations–I would act according to those recommendations, and see what they said.”
– Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, interview with The Appeal
Descano is a former federal prosecutor, and also a member of the recently-formed Fairfax Police Civilian Review Panel. The Panel was formed in 2016 in response to, among other things, the unjustified police shooting of John Geer. Morrogh was a 12-year incumbent and has worked in the prosecutor’s office since the 1980s.
Despite practicing for over 30 years, Morrogh was fairly reform-minded and was in-line with several ACLU issue items in his questionnaire. However, Morrogh was also prominent in 2014 loudly objecting to the efforts of the Obama Administration to reform mandatory minimums in sentencing. As for Descano, he describes mandatory minimums as giving prosecutors “even more power to bully people into pleas and threaten them, and that’s not doing justice.”
Again, I encourage you to read Descano’s entire ACLU questionnaire and his interview with the Appeal, and I’ll leave you with two quotes:
“A prosecutor’s job is not to win cases, a prosecutor’s job is to do justice. And part of doing justice is by creating fair trials.”
– Steve Descano, interview with The Appeal
Finally, when asked about his time on the Police Review Panel:
“You cannot build that trust on the day a crisis hits, you need to build that trust in big ways and small ways every other day of the year. So from my perspective as a future commonwealth’s attorney, what I came to learn is that we have done a bad job at building trust between the commonwealth’s attorney, our criminal justice system, and our community. That needs to be job one, which is to rebuild that trust. That’s why I am going to be transparent and accountable.”
– Steve Descano, interview with The Appeal
For those who support real criminal justice reform, Tuesday night was an exciting night in the Commonwealth. Even when it seems like statewide reforms are near-impossible due to legislative obstacles, having reform-minded public servants in key positions like these offices can go a long way in showing there’s a better, more just, and limited-government path to securing communities and serving the people.