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Reforming Criminal Justice in “Liberal” Northern Virginia

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Reforming Criminal Justice in “Liberal” Northern Virginia

Reforming Criminal Justice in “Liberal” Northern Virginia
November 13
21:54 2019

Arlington County, Virginia seems like the last place in the country that might stage a pitched battle over hot-button issues like racism and class privilege in the local criminal justice system.

This part of northern Virginia just across the river from Washington, DC has trended heavily Blue in recent years, and the residents of these upscale suburbs were diehard Hillary Clinton supporters in 2016.

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Overall, the county is liberal but moderately so.  You won’t find a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters here.  It’s the nation’s 5th wealthiest country and the median household income tops $115.000.

The county police patrol aggressively everywhere – and for most residents, regardless of their political affiliation, “law and order” is a top-line concern.

So it came as something of a shock when former public defender Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, an Iranian-born woman with two adopted Black children, and a vocal supporter of criminal justice reform, narrowly defeated the county’s long-established Democratic District Attorney, Theo Stamos, in a special election last June.

Stamos, by all accounts, was no ogre.   She ruled the roost for years in a county where police brutality and racial shooting incidents are unheard of, and crime rates are steadily falling.  She enjoyed strong support not only from local police associations but also from local residents, who saw her as a tough cop who was sensitive enough changing times and mores to institute special courts to try to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

But it wasn’t enough.  Stamos was seen by many voters as simply too slow to adapt to changing times.  In 2017, she made the mistake of angering the state’s powerful senior Democrat Terry McAuliffe by opposing his 2017 proposal to allow former felons to vote.  But she also lost the support of many in the legal profession who saw her as too willing to lock defendants up or force them into prejudicial plea bargains rather than allow real justice to prevail.

Of particular concern were the county’s archaic rules for pre-trial “discovery” which many defense attorneys argued were highly prejudicial to the accused.  Defendants in criminal cases were being denied open access to police records, which made it impossible to conduct an in-depth review of police evidence and to defend their clients at preliminary hearings – and if necessary, at trial.

Stamos had defended the rules as necessary to protect the “privacy” of crime victims, but lawyers attacked that rationale saying their clients were being denied due process.

In an unusual step, some 106 local attorneys signed a two-page open letter criticizing Stamos’ leadership and calling for an end to Arlington’s “culture of over-criminalization.” Citing statistics that showed that Arlington was incarcerating guilty defendants at the highest rates of any local county — and even higher than the rate at the federal level – the lawyers noted that relatively few cases go to trial because of undue pressure from prosecutors to force defendants to plea bargain on terms favorable to the prosecution.

The letter also noted that  while African-Americans constitute barely 9% of the country’s population they “represent nearly half of those charged with driving on a suspended license and nearly 60% of those charged with marijuana possession in Arlington.”

In the special election, she won last June, Dehghani-Tafti earned the endorsement of the Washington Post, which cited many of the statistics contained in the open-letter.  She also received heavy financial backing from billionaire donor George Soros.  Spending on the race was ten times the level of previous years.  Because of the perceived political stakes, and the issues involved, a fairly obscure local attorney’s contest soon became a national cause célèbre.

Dehghani-Tafti’s personal experience as a US immigrant who’d defended indigent clients was one factor that prompted her decision to challenge Stamos.  So was her experience with a close friend who’d been wrongly convicted of a crime and spent 5 years behind bars.   Throughout the campaign Dehghani-Tafti said she was intimately familiar with the deep structural inequalities that operate even in the midst of an otherwise fair-minded of criminal justice system – and her message clearly resonated across all voter groups.

That the 49-year old public defender with no experience as a prosecutor in a county proud of its declining crime rates could still win shows just how much the tide is turning here, especially among Democrats.  Some have compared her election to that of New York’s Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortes, another inexperienced upstart who successfully unseated a popular establishment Democrat considered out of step with demands for more aggressive forwarding-looking policies.

For now at least, Dehghani-Tafti isn’t looking to do more than overhaul Arlington’s criminal justice system in areas in egregious need of reform.  But many who supported Stamos – including the two leading police associations — are skeptical about her sweeping vision; they worry that Dehghani-Tafti is naïve, lacks prosecutorial instincts and will prove to too “soft” on crime, undermining the gains the County’s made in recent years.

Naturally, Dehghani-Tafti’s staunch supporters feel her election is long overdue.  Despite Arlington’s liberal image, its police culture, especially, still reflects much of the “Old South” mentality found elsewhere in Virginia, they say.  Diversity hiring in law enforcement is abysmally slow in a county that has witnessed an influx of Hispanic immigrants – and immigrants of professional backgrounds like Dehghani-Tafti — for decades.

Dehghani-Tafti’s election probably won’t have much effect on Arlington County life – or policing — in the short term.  She’ll have to build bridges to her critics and fashion workable compromises.  It won’t be easy.

But her sheer presence and passion will likely become an important catalyst for debate over criminal justice reform on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, and in the years to come.

About Author

Stewart L

Stewart L

Stewart Lawrence is a trained sociologist and political scientist and a regular columnist for the Washington Times and the Federalist. He is also a former feature contributor to Inside Philanthropy, Counterpunch and the Huffington Post. In 2012 and 2016, he covered the US presidential election campaign for the conservative news magazine Daily Caller. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post. He is currently working on a book about the politics of US immigration policy.

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1 Comment

  1. Ed
    Ed November 16, 22:29

    Soros is attempting to turn our criminal justice system on it’s ear by buying elections for Leftist “criminal justice reformers”, such as Dehghani-Tafti, and Chesa Boudin. The goal is to throw the US into anarchy by being soft on crime and setting up a revolving door where violent criminals are in and out of prison quickly, with reduced sentences and parole under the guise of “social justice” and “equity”. to commit more heinous and violent crimes against law abiding citizens. Combine this with the erosion of our 2A rights and you begin to create the perfect criminal storm.

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