2024-07-18 4:44 PM

A Spirited Commonwealth Attorney Race for Falls Church

The one time-colleagues vying to be Commonwealth’s Attorney for Falls Church and Arlington present a contrast in resumes and in approaches to the national reform movement known as restorative justice.

Incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who won an upset victory in 2019 on a reform agenda, was confronted this November by a challenge in the coming June Democratic primary by Josh Katcher, whom she had named as deputy commonwealth’s attorney before he resigned in disillusionment last August.

Both active Democrats (the winner of their primary is often a shoo-in against Republicans in November), the two in interviews with the News-Press claim similar goals but differ markedly in backgrounds and styles.

Dehghani-Tafti, who grew up poor in an Iranian immigrant family, brought 18 years as a public defender to the elected position. She sees herself as a “change agent” battling establishment resistance to principles deployed by allies around the country seeking to focus prosecutors’ resources on violent crimes while approaching smaller crimes with rehabilitation and improved case follow-up.

Katcher, with more than a decade in the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, has prosecuted hundreds of cases, including 50 jury trials in the Circuit, General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts. He blasts the incumbent for running an “office in free fall,” saying 13 qualified attorneys have left in 13 months due a “lack of support” and low morale.

The contest plays out against a national backdrop in which numerous prosecutors—including those in Fairfax and Loudoun counties—have been attacked by conservatives who blame an increase in pandemic-era crimes on liberal reforms they traditionally characterize as soft on criminals.

Dehghani-Tafti, after being subject to a recall campaign, asserts that she delivered on her campaign promises, obtaining convictions on unsolved homicide and rape cases left behind by predecessor Theo Stamos, ending requests for cash bail and caring for victims and youth “downstream.” “The things people were scared of have not come to be,” she says. She distributed her national profile published in a 2022 book by Miriam Aroni Krinsky titled “Change from Within: Reimagining the 21st Century Prosecutor.”

She counters Katcher’s argument about the rash of staff departures, saying many left for performance reasons or better opportunities — notably judicial nominees W. Michael Chick Jr. (now on the Juvenile and Domestic Court) and Cari Steele (whose nomination for General District Court is pending in Richmond).

Katcher responds that the 13 doesn’t include those nominees. He also accuses her of delaying cases that were then dismissed, though she denies it, pointing to the Virginia Supreme Court’s emergency orders during Covid that paused trials.

Dehghani-Tafti points to an “asymmetrical situation” in that Katcher is free to “take shots” at her, but her incumbency requires her to respect privacy. When she entered office, she kept on many attorneys who had supported her predecessor—including some Katcher himself managed–“because I needed to keep institutional knowledge.”

She is active on Twitter, however, In June 2022, officers in the Arlington Coalition of Police protested her “ineptitude” and “deflection of blame” after she criticized police handling of a search of a murder suspect, who’d been released earlier, seen as unconstitutional. As reported by Arlnow, she tweeted that she was “not casting blame on anyone: the police did a search they may have thought was constitutional; defense counsel zealously represented her client; the judge issued a ruling he believed correct. Those 2 deaths are tragic; that they’re now being exploited for lies is wrong.”

Katcher, who has knocked on nearly 900 doors campaigning–first in Falls Church then in Arlington–worries that the departures of attorneys from the 20-21-attorney staff “are not easy to replace because they’re in high demand” elsewhere. The junior prosecutors “need training, supervision and mentorship,” he says. Dehghani-Tafti “lacks relevant experience or the apparent interest in being a prosecutor,” he adds, noting that she has never personally prosecuted a case. “I have the relevant experience to lead the office.”

Josh Katcher (Photo: Ben Jones)

Because prosecutors “wield awesome power that can ruin someone’s life,” Katcher observes, “it’s kind of terrifying for a junior prosecutor. They need advice and support from someone with relevant experience as a prosecutor.”  

Dehghani-Tafti responds that the commonwealth’s attorney “has to do what only the CA can do.” The job is “not a line prosecutor, nor should it be. That’s why we hire staff. But I’m involved with cases, if it’s a unique case, even if minor, and all homicide cases. I support my team in ways unique to me.” She cites her years as a defense attorney acquiring experience in court case forensics. “It’s lazy to say if you’re not a prosecutor you can’t do the work. We need a fresh way to look at problems.”

Katcher portrays crime as rising, though acknowledging that because of delays in recent data, much evidence is anecdotal. The latest annual report from the Arlington Police Department showed an overall crime increase of 4.8 percent from 2020 to 2021. (The Falls Church rate is about half of Arlington’s, according to an analysis by bestplaces.net.) And he agrees on the value of restorative justice, despite her skepticism of his commitment.  “It is an invaluable tool in the justice arsenal,” he says, stressing its natural applicability in schools for such issues as bullying or destruction of property. “But it’s going to require a lot more work for the community to become fluent in this concept. No one wants to feel that this justice practice is being inflicted on them.”

Her charge that he is “not a reformer is blatantly political,” Katcher says. “She knows I believe in reform. I spent more time sitting with Parisa talking and writing about my philosophy than most kids applying for college.” His decision to quit a job he loved was done “with a heavy heart.”

Parisa Tafti (Photo: Alex Sakes)

 When there’s a changeover in the Commonwealth attorney job, staff prosecutors are “not automatically re-hired and sworn in,” so he competed well enough to stay on and later win the deputy job. “What we’re really talking about is the value of relationships—with judges, police, victims,” he adds, citing his experience leading the Bar Association and teaching law classes. Katcher’s version of reform would mean “drawing a line between the cases the county wants prosecuted—murder, rape, gangs, drug trafficking—on which the left and right agree, and on the other side where “policy has failed”—treatment of the mentally ill, the homeless, the addicted, youth offenders.

“Police officers and judges increasingly are open-minded about giving defendants treatment,” he says. “If we describe the law-and-order approach as ‘one size-fits-all for incarceration,’ my reforms say, ‘Let’s humanize and contextualize, with a more nuanced approach.’ Katcher would like to see “a second generation of prosecutors like me take hold of the reform baton and run with it.”

Dehghani-Tafti rejects the notion of rising crime—she’s aware of a recent study by Smartasset.com listing Arlington among the safest localities. “It’s more visible now, with reform prosecutors increasing crime reporting,” she says. “No one person can make crime go away—it’s cyclical—and people have lost faith in institutions,” she adds. “I saw cracks in the system” exposed by the pandemic—displacement, suffering, grief, trauma, “like we’ve never seen before. Small things like road rage,” she adds. The county’s Human Services Department can’t retain enough clinicians when mental health complaints are rising. She is upbeat, however, about the rise in cases being diverted to the special drug court, which she would like to see expanded.

The incumbent has been endorsed by top Democrats: Rep. Don Beyer and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (recently elected to U.S. Congress); County Clerk Paul Ferguson; Del. Patrick Hope and former Del. Jennifer Carol Foy; county board members Matt de Ferranti and Takis Karontonis; and former school board member Monique O’Grady. Katcher plans to announce endorsements later this spring. The Arlington Committee on Police has yet to endorse, says president Randall Mason, as they’re concentrating on pay and vacancy issues. “We try not to be political in races such as for county board,” he says. “But this election has a direct impact,” so they will endorse before June.

Katcher is confident he raised more money than Dehghani-Tafti in the last quarter, “which shows an appetite for this challenge among the community and small donors—people power,” he says. The incumbent rejects the frequent criticism that she accepts too much outside money from Restorative Justice advocates. “Look at what I’ve raised on my own locally,” she says. “Because the role of a prosecutor is misunderstood, a lot of the campaign is about education to reach people. That takes money.”

Walking in Falls Church, Katcher feels a “receptiveness to his arguments,” characterizing the smaller community as “similar to Arlington in that people are tuned in to what they want from [the] government, with high expectations.”

Dehghani-Tafti says Police Chief Mary Gavin, while working with her well on serious cases, has “instilled a sense that feels like community policing. Falls Church is not quick to penalize, and each official makes the effort to be part of the community.”

She also says she now has “good relationships with police and judges,” casting herself as a “problem solver. I have tried very hard to build relationships and find common ground while maintaining distance and professionalism,” she says. “I can’t do it and keep everyone happy while making unpopular decisions. Change is hard. It’s not fast or easy.”

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