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How Parisa Dehghani-Tafti Could Shape Arlington’s Legal Landscape

Last night, reform candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti was elected the next top prosecutor for Arlington and Falls Church, leaving questions about how her campaign promises could affect the area’s political and legal landscape.

Throughout her unusually contentious — and expensive — campaign, Tafti promised to stop prosecuting some marijuana possession cases, eliminate some cash bail requirements, and make it easier for defense attorneys to access case files, among other reforms.

Tafti declined to discuss details about her plans for the prosecutor’s office itself, but the other agencies most affected by her reforms say her tenure could have a big impact on their work.

Public defenders may have more time with their clients 

Chief Public Defender Bradley Haywood has been a vocal critic of outgoing Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and donated to Tafti’s campaign. He told ARLnow her win will “absolutely” change the work his office can do, adding that her election was an “amazing opportunity” for judges, lawyers, and prosecutors to work together on criminal justice reform.

One reform Haywood said will majorly impact public defenders is Tafti’s promise to do away with the the requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal cases — a process several attorneys say is “horribly inefficient” and makes preparing large cases impossible.

“We estimated that there were about 1,000-1,500 hours we spent in that stupid room typing manually,” Haywood said of his office’s work in the past year. “It’s going to go down from 1,000 hours to zero probably in January. That will give us time to actually learn more about our clients.”

Tafti told ARLnow last night after the polls closed and her campaign declared victory that she was “absolutely” still committed to digitizing the document policy.

The Arlington County Bar Association, which includes private defense attorneys, declined to comment when asked how the new prosecutor’s policy priorities could affect members’ work.

The Sheriff’s Office may need a budget bump

Another one of the reforms Tafti focused on during her campaign was ending the practice of “cash bail,” which she said penalizes lower-income people who might instead remain jail as they await trial.

Outgoing prosecutor Theo Stamos announced last November she would stop seeking bail for people accused of low-level misdemeanors after seven state lawmakers urged her to fix the system. However, public defenders criticized the plan for still excluding too many defendants, calling it a “cynical PR move” to help her bid for re-election.

Sheriff Beth Arthur, who won her re-election last night, told ARLnow she didn’t necessarily oppose more changes to the bail system. But she did express concern about how to manage resources if judges choose to release defendants before trial with conditions — like weekly drug testing — in lieu of bail.

“I do have concerns from a staffing perspective and from an operational perspective on how how this impacts the poor people who are managing the program and who have a caseload of 60-65 people,” she said of her office’s pre-trial program that supervises such defendants. “That’s a lot.”

However, Arthur said she’s hopeful that the county will grant her office additional resources to staff pre-trial programs should they be affected by Tafti’s reforms — or the jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses.

In June, the Arlington County Board approved a $45.3 million total budget for the Sheriff’s Office in fiscal year 2020.

Too early to tell for police

Tafti has pledged to create an independent review policy for instances of alleged police brutality after drawing the ire of local first responder groups, which criticized her accusations that Stamos had refused to prosecute brutality cases in the past.

Tafti has also promised to not prosecute people for first-time, non-violent marijuana cases — an issue that has long been a sore spot for defense attorneys and that the candidate said was the most common offense people were charged with last year in Arlington.

ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said the question of how police could be affected by Tafti’s reforms was too “speculative” to answer until the prosecutor-elect took office.

“All we can really say is that we’re committed to working with whoever is elected,” Savage said Tuesday afternoon before the polls closed, adding of Tafti’s expected victory that the department is “committed to working with her to ensure the safety of Arlington County.”

To Richmond (and beyond)

Arthur also noted during an interview Tuesday afternoon that if “the legislature turns you’ll see some laws change that impact these issues as well. It will be interesting.”

Tuesday night, Virginia Democrats took control of both the state Senate and the House of Delegates for the first time since 1993. In Arlington, the news of the General Assembly flip at the Democrat’s election party was met by cheers and calls for legislation eliminating cash bail, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, and enacting gun control measures.

In the past, Stamos has deferred to lawmakers in Richmond when it comes to more drastic reforms, saying rolling out reforms for things like bail reform or eschewing prosecution for some marijuana-related cases requires legislative changes.

State Democrats have since reiterated their plans for criminal justice reforms, among other policy priorities.

“I’m really excited about a getting a restorative justice program started,” Tafti said. “It’s not the answer to everything but it’s a way to raise the voice of victims and really permit victims to have more of a say in what the healing process is and how the case is resolved while actually reducing crime.”

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