Two primary candidates for Arlington-Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney hit each other hard April 6 in a debate that contrasted the incumbent’s vision of restorative justice reforms against a challenger—her onetime deputy—who accuses her of lapses in nuts-and-bolts management.
The sometimes-testy exchanges during the event sponsored by the prison reform group OAR (Offender Aid and Restoration) at George Mason University’s Virginia campus allowed incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and challenger Josh Katcher to showcase their agendas in preparation for a June 20 Democratic primary vote.
Dehghani-Tafti, who upset incumbent Theo Stamos in a 2019 primary, said her key policy goal is to use the office as a “pulpit” to “build a more just, more equitable criminal justice system while keeping the community safe.” One of the “open secrets,” she said, is that Arlington was one of the most regressive jurisdictions in the Commonwealth. Restorative justice is succeeding at the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office “despite a right-wing-funded recall,” and a right-wing state Attorney General James Miyares who has “sought to defeat reform at every turn.”
“We have delivered on our campaign’s central promises,” she said, citing a focus on serious crime, stopped asking for cash bail, established a restorative justice program, offered a behavioral health docket, created a conviction review unit, expanded drug treatment, halted certification of child defendants as adults, reduced the jail population, instituted open-file discovery, and stopped use of peremptory strikes in jury selection. She still seeks gun buy-backs and raised pay for public defenders (as does Katcher). “No other jurisdiction has done reform better, faster or safer than us,” she stated, calling Arlington’s reforms a national model.
Katcher, who quit in disillusionment after 11 years in the CA’s office and leadership positions in the Arlington Bar Association and the Virginia State Bar Council, blasted his former boss for presiding over an office “in free fall.” Fourteen staff attorneys have left in the past 18 months, he said, “all handpicked by my opponent. Such a loss of experience and talent brings obvious capacity issues resulting in legal errors occurring and victims not getting good treatment.”
Katcher pointed to recent numbers showing crimes against persons up 16 percent and property crimes up 23 percent over the past year, saying they show a lack of “real reform. I have the relationships and experience to deliver on 21st century reform prosecution,” he said. Unlike Dehghani-Tahti, a former public defender who has not personally prosecuted a case, “I was tried cases in every court in courthouse, from traffic up to and including murder.”
Citing the “incredible discretion” prosecutors use in good or bad ways, Dehghani-Tahti stressed a preference for “rehabilitation” over “retribution”. Traditional prosecutors “can abuse power by stacking charges,” or making presumptive punishments so high the defendants “have feel no choice but to plead guilty. My opponent did that. We won’t use mandatory minimums because of racial disparities; my opponent said he is colorblind.” Arguing that blacks in Arlington are charged with crimes at a 50 percent higher rate, she accused the challenger of “helping create” the approach of predecessor Stamos, which, the incumbent said, emphasized the death penalty, charging kids with felonies and enforcing abortion bans. “My opponent described that as a shining example of how progressive prosecuting can work.”
Katcher took offense at her charge he had neglected formal training of staff in racial bias, pointing to the country’s progress in moving away from 1980s severe prosecutions for crack cocaine to the current approach of acknowledging substance abuse and mental health issues surrounding the opioid epidemic. His opponent, he said, has a “laser-like focus on the mission, but I have a laser-like focus on people trying to accomplishing the mission,” down “in the trenches working cases.”
Katcher faulted the incumbent for spending work time on social media debating national issues. And criticized her office as a “black box for data,” promising a new public dashboard on prosecutions. She cited outside evaluations of her office productivity.
Katcher picked up endorsements from Democratic activists and county board member Libby Garvey, former school board chair Barbara Kanninen and former county board candidate Chanda Choun. Dehghani-Tafti has backing from Reps. Don Beyer and Jennifer McClellan; county board members Takis Karantonis and Matt de Ferranti and former county board member Mary Hynes; former state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple; state Sens. Barbara Favola, Scott Surovell, and Dick Saslaw; school board member Mary Kadera; former school board members Nancy Van Doren and Monique O’Grady; Dels. Alfonso Lopez and Marcus Simon; Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson; and Revenue Commissioner Ingrid Morroy.
Because of scant Republican challengers, the winner of the June Democratic primary is the likely next officeholder.