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Arlington’s Top Prosecutor Draws Primary Challenger, Kicking Off Battle Over Criminal Justice Reforms

(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) Now that Arlington’s top prosecutor has drawn a primary challenger, the stage is set for a battle next year over many of the criminal justice issues that have electrified traditionally sleepy races across the country.

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti announced Monday (Dec. 10) that she plans to challenge Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) in 2019, arguing that she’d rely on her background as a defense attorney to bring a series of reforms to the office. Stamos was first elected in 2011 and has served as a prosecutor in the county since 1987, experience that Dehghani-Tafti claims has blinded Stamos to the criminal justice system’s flaws.

“Perhaps nothing exemplifies the current [commonwealth’s attorney’s] unsuitability to lead meaningful reform than the fact that she has publicly denied that mass incarceration even exists and has argued that the system is working perfectly,” Dehghani-Tafti wrote in a Facebook post announcing her candidacy. “I want to dismantle the mass incarceration machine and replace it with policies that pursue justice, increase accountability, prevent crime, prioritize serious crimes and protect civil rights.”

Dehghani-Tafti’s arguments are similar to those advanced by a variety of other defense attorneys who have begun challenging incumbent prosecutors across the country. Former public defenders and civil rights attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia have been swept into office by promising substantial reforms to the system, claiming that prosecutors have the discretion to cut back on the number of people sent to prison for low-level offenses.

“We can no longer hope for reform from the very same lifelong prosecutors who’ve spent their careers building this flawed machine,” Dehghani-Tafti wrote.

But Stamos argues that Dehghani-Tafti’s critiques of her record are mistaken, accusing her of discussing issues applicable to “Baltimore, Chicago, Baton Rouge, or Los Angeles,” not Arlington. Though she has yet to formally announce her bid for re-election, she seems ready to vigorously defend her seven years in office.

“Not only do I not support mass incarceration, I know no prosecutor who does,” Stamos wrote in a statement to ARLnow. “Every person who is prosecuted by my office is an individual with a name, a family and a story to tell and a crime they have committed for which they are held accountable. I have never once lost sight of the humanity of any defendant prosecuted by my office. Is the criminal justice system perfect? Absolutely not, and I’ve worked for years and spoken out in support of many reforms.”

In fact, Stamos claims she’s been a “statewide leader” in criminal justice reform efforts in Virginia. She points to her support for a bill to raise the felony larceny threshold as one example — before the General Assembly passed reforms this year, anyone accused of stealing an item worth $200 or more could be charged with a felony — and her work to lessen penalties for people convicted of their first marijuana-related offenses as another.

Yet Dehghani-Tafti, who currently serves as the legal director for the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and has worked in D.C.’s public defender’s office, believes that Stamos’ attempts at reform haven’t gone far enough. Namely, she points to Stamos’ opposition to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to felons who completed their prison sentences as one troubling stance, and argues that Stamos has “opposed real bail reform.”

Stamos has taken some heat on the latter issue in the past, after she refused calls from a coalition of state lawmakers to stop requesting cash bail for criminal defendants. She subsequently agreed to end cash bail for people accused of most low-level misdemeanors, but even that step drew criticism from local public defenders for being “so limited as to be meaningless.”

“It’s not reform if it doesn’t change anything, and it doesn’t seem to me that she’s actually changing much of anything,” Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow. “And getting rid of cash bail and coming up with alternatives will take a lot of work, and no one size fits all, but it’s not something that gets done in a press release.”

In general, Stamos has grounded her resistance to more comprehensive bail reforms in her concern that, without a cash bond in place, defendants won’t appear for court dates, therefore wasting the time of victims and witnesses alike. Stamos highlighted her “vigorous protection of victims’ rights” as a key part of her response to Dehghani-Tafti’s announcement, arguing that her newfound challenger fundamentally misunderstands the prosecutor’s role.

“It’s interesting that she describes herself as an “innocence protection attorney,” as that is what I’ve been engaged in for more than 30 years — protecting innocent victims from the hell of intimate partner violence, giving voice to the innocent victims whose loved one has been brutally murdered, or providing protection to the innocent elderly couple whose life savings became easy prey for the greedy and the unscrupulous,” Stamos wrote. “It’s striking that the word ‘victim’ is not mentioned once in Ms. Tafti’s announcement.”

But Dehghani-Tafti accused Stamos of creating a “false choice between protecting defendants’ rights and protecting victims” with such a focus.

“It’s a classic fear tactic, that’s, frankly, straight out of Trump’s playbook,” Dehghani-Tafti  said. “I think we can have a justice system that honors victims of crime and provides just outcomes for the whole community. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Notably, Dehghani-Tafti’s post also did not touch on Stamos’ support for County Board member John Vihstadt in all three of his independent bids for office — Stamos is one of just three Democratic officeholders in the county to support his candidacy over the years, ruffling a few feathers among party leaders. Dehghani-Tafti, by contrast, has served as the county Democratic Committee’s lead spokeswoman as its press and public relations chair.

However, she said Stamos’ support for Vihstadt had “zero influence on my decision to run.”

“If she had a record that I believed in, I wouldn’t be running,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “I’d be supporting her wholeheartedly.”

A June 11 primary will decide the Democratic nomination in the race, and quite likely its ultimate winner as well — Stamos has run unopposed in both of her general election contests, thus far.

Photo of Dehghani-Tafti, left, via Facebook

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