Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary: Current Commonwealth Attorney Shares Views

By Parisa Dehgani-Tafti

Four years ago, I ran for Commonwealth’s Attorney on the simple idea that we could  build a more fair and just legal system while still keeping our community safe. I am proud to say  that since I took office, we have made that idea into a reality. I have kept every promise I made  to implement criminal justice reform here in the City of Falls Church and County of Arlington,  helping to make our community one of the safest in the country. 

As promised, I have expanded opportunities for diversion for lower level crimes and non violent crimes. I helped create a mental health docket and expanded our drug court, quadrupling  the number of people served by it. These diversion programs get people the treatment they need  rather than simply incarcerating them and ignoring the underlying issue. This both makes our  community safer, and is the right thing to do.  

I have also worked to make the legal process easier on victims and survivors. I  reorganized the office to implement a victim-centered prosecution model. This means that only  one prosecutor or team is assigned to each case so that victims aren’t being shuffled around  between different prosecutors at every stage. Further, I have helped empower victims by creating  a restorative justice program for appropriate cases. 

I have used my lobbying power as a prosecutor to advocate for safer gun laws and  criminal justice reforms. I supported Red Flag laws, ending the death penalty, decriminalizing  marijuana, and many other legislative efforts. More than once, I have convinced VACA (the  statewide Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ lobbying group) to see the other side of an issue and  refrain from opposing reforms. That’s why I’ve earned the endorsement of local progressive  legislators like Delegate Marcus Simon. 

Of course, my office aggressively prosecutes serious crimes like rape, murder, and gun  violence. Under my supervision, the office’s trial conviction rates on violent felonies have nearly  doubled over those of my predecessor. The overall trial conviction rate is also significantly  higher. And we have achieved these increases even as we take a higher percentage of cases to  trial. My focus on addressing serious crime is why I have earned the endorsement of Senator  Dick Saslaw, who has written some of Virginia’s toughest sentencing laws for violent crimes. 

As you may know, before becoming the Commonwealth’s Attorney, I spent many years  working at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. In doing so, I saw the harm that results—both to  the accused and to crime victims—when the system gets it wrong. That’s why I created a  conviction review unit to review old convictions for mistakes. That unit has already helped  overturn one wrongful conviction. 

To prevent errors going forward, I have also made strides to even the playing field with  the defense and make sure trials are a fair fight. Immediately upon taking office, I ended my  predecessor’s outdated policy requiring defense attorneys to hand-copy documents and began  providing open-file electronic discovery. And, I was one of the first offices in the country to stop  using peremptory strikes in jury trials except in limited circumstances. This is a commonsense  way to prevent discrimination in jury selection. 

Many of these accomplishments have been possible because of the broad discretion I  enjoy as a prosecutor. If that discretion falls into the wrong hands, the work can be undone. For  example, on day one of my tenure, my office stopped asking for cash bail. That policy could be  reversed just as quickly. That’s why this race is so important. 

I am the only person in this race who has the balanced perspective that comes from being  on all sides of the criminal justice system—I’ve been a public defender, a reform prosecutor, and  an innocence protection attorney. I am the only one who has years of experience managing  offices of attorneys. I am the only one who has dedicated my career to making our system more  fair and just, and the only one with a record of reform. It’s why people like Congressman Don  Beyer and Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan have endorsed me. They know that I don’t just  talk the talk, I actually walk the walk. We’ve come so far in three-and-a-half short years, and we  can’t afford to go backward. I hope I can count on your support for re-election to protect our progress on June 20th or before via early voting.

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