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Commonwealth’s Attorney Enters Partnership to Tackle Racial Disparities in Prosecution

Arlington’s top prosecutor is partnering with a national criminal justice organization to reduce racial disparities in prosecution.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner are the first two prosecutors to participate in a new partnership program from the Vera Institute for Justice, an organization working to reform the justice system, per its website.

“The Vera Institute for Justice has done an incredible amount of work on public safety, incarceration rates, and also whether incarceration is an effective tool for public safety,” Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “They were an organization that I was always hopeful to work with.”

As part of the new partnership, Dehghani-Tafti and Gardner will be working to reduce race-based differentials in prosecution rates by 20% in their jurisdictions. The work is part of Vera’s Motion for Justice initiative, in which prosecutors are given support and opportunities to bridge the gap between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, according to a press release.

Dehghani-Tafti and Gardner’s offices will receive policy recommendations and staff training, as well as resources to analyze data on the ways marginalized people are disproportionately impacted by prosecution practices, the release said.

This partnership, which will last 18 months, singles out Arlington as a leader in this work, Dehghani-Tafti said. The Arlington and St. Louis prosecutors’ offices are the first of up to 10 prosecutors’ offices in jurisdictions across the country that Vera plans to invite on as partners. (Dehghani-Tafti’s office also prosecutes cases for the City of Falls Church.)

“This is the conversation that I started when I started running,” she said. “We need to look at the results of our system and figure out how and why we’re there.”

This partnership is one way Dehghani-Tafti said she is keeping her promise to use data and evidence to drive lasting criminal justice reform.

“We’re going to need some help with our data, making our case management system be able to analyze data and run reports that are actually meaningful,” the prosecutor said.

The system Dehghani-Tafti said she inherited was designed to store information, not answer larger questions such as who is disproportionately represented in certain case outcomes.

“You can go case by case but you’re still operating in a system that we know cements racial and economic divides, continues cycles of traumas, affects families and communities and treats people who are incarcerated and their families — who haven’t done anything wrong — as expendable,” she said.

Here in Northern Virginia, Vera will also provide financial assistance to the Courthouse-based nonprofit Offender Aid and Restoration.

“OAR is an ideal partner for this,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “They’ve been looking at policies and practices, such as community service, through an anti-racism lens: Your economic means, your race, your zip code, your ability to speak English — that all can make it harder or easier to do community service.”

Dehghani-Tafti said she plans to get started with the Vera partnership “forthwith,” as soon as she can schedule 10 training sessions.

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