The Arlington District Court, which covers the City of Falls Church, swore in its new Commonwealth Attorney last month and since Jan. 1, in her first few weeks in her new role, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is already keeping her campaign promise about choosing not to prosecute most simple marijuana possession arrests and also doing much more.
In an exclusive interview with the News-Press Friday, she talked about a much more ambitious agenda she is hoping to advance in her first four-year term, one which turns the recent decades’ approach to criminal prosecution and even the core notion of the function of the American criminal justice system on its head. It is centered on the notion of “restorative justice” instead of merely punitive justice.
Namely, in the last few decades, the focus of criminal justice has become almost entirely punitive, rather than rehabilitating, with laws since the 1980s focused on stiff sentences and “three strikes you’re out” approaches to tough enforcement that has led to a veritable explosion in the number of persons either in prison or caught in the criminal justice system in one way or another.
Earlier debates on how to approach criminal justice from the standpoint of the rehabilitation of the offender were effectively quashed. But that has led to an unacceptable cycle of abuse that is to the detriment, disproportionately, of the poor and has led to skyrocketing costs to the public, increasingly poor treatment of those caught in the system, and record levels of incarceration that far outstrip the rest of the advanced nations of the world.
This is the heady problem that Dehghani-Tafti, elected to her current position for the first time in November following an upset victory over the incumbent in the Democratic primary last June, is setting out to tackle in her new and influential role.
One of her first moves since taking office earlier this month was to bring on Cari Steele as her chief assistant to establish continuity with the operations of the outgoing team. Steele, as it turns out, was the department’s chief person handling the Falls Church court and will continue in that role.
Also, Dehghani-Tafti has already met with police chiefs and other law enforcement directors in court jurisdiction, and that has included Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin, whom she described as “always delightful and very easy to work with.” She said that a lot of common ground was established in these initial meetings.
She was due in Richmond this week for a meeting of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth Attorneys to consider legislation to support in the current session. With the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, she said that she is backing bills calling for either the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy has a legalization bill, and State Sen. Adam Ebbin has a decriminalization bill.
She is also favoring legislation calling for a “writ of actual innocence” which would permit persons convicted and serving time on the basis of “junk science” techniques that have been discredited to appeal for a new trial, a bill introduced by Del. Charniele Herring.
There is also a bill introduced by Del. Foy calling for greater transparency in the use of data collection in the consideration of bail that includes a provision that “bail is to be construed so as to give effect to a general presumption in favor of pretrial release.” She also has a bill to stop the automatic suspension of driver’s licences for failure to pay court fees.
Dehghani-Tafti is advocating a no cash bail policy, notwithstanding conditions, and the term for her long-term impact passion project involves winning a grant from the Annie Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropic organization that works across the United States to “develop a brighter future for millions of children at risk or poor educational, economic, social and health outcomes.”
The Casey Foundation has granted the Arlington court the use of the services for a year of a professional facilitator for its “restorative justice program.” Liane Rossell, a senior policy associate with the Casey Foundation is on loan to Arlington, and she and the “restorative justice” approach was introduced at a public forum on Jan. 11.
Dehghani-Tafti will be working with an array of Arlington County agencies concerned with youth and adults alike involving law enforcement, the public schools and mental health groups such as the Arlington Mental Health Disability Alliance.
In law enforcement cases, they often involve a facilitator who can work with victims and perpetrators, alike, to develop better outcomes for all involved. Where this is in effect, such as in the District of Columbia, the approach works only when the victim wants it, but has been shown to lead to a lot of healing, Dehghani-Tafti said, and to reduce recidivism.
The basic idea, she said, is to find a meaningful and just alternative to the prison pipeline for the vast numbers who are not dangerous criminals but who have been caught up in circumstances where they’ve broken the law, many times due to social or economic pressures.
These are not hardened criminals and will not become as such, but need a solid and just way to be restored, themselves and their victims. This is especially the case, she said, where so many crimes involve persons who know one another or are family.
Last week, Dehghani-Tafti signed onto an amicus brief signed by 57 criminal justice leaders and the Disability Law Center involving a case in the Shenandoah Valley. It argued that detained immigrants and other children should be entitled to trauma-informed care.
It stated in part, “The denial of (immigrant children’s) right to receive care that would help them cope and avoid additional trauma while detained is beyond disappointing and speaks to the work that remains for us to see beyond the harsh punitive lens that colors our entire system of justice.”