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Commonwealth’s Attorney nabs federal grant to pursue justice reforms

Arlington’s top prosecutor just got a boost from the U.S. Department of Justice to continue pursuing criminal justice reforms.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded $340,000 to the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, led by Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. This is the maximum grant allowed through the bureau’s Innovative Prosecution Solutions program, according to a press release.

The $340,000 will fund two new positions, including one for someone trained in social work, the release said. It will support work to train facilitators in restorative practices — intended to reduce the length of incarcerations, at least in some cases, while also providing justice to the victim — and identify which D.C.-area restorative services and diversion programs produce the best public safety outcomes.

“It’s a game changer because it allows us to develop partnerships with diversion programs across the Metro area, for the first time, both in service of developing opportunities and reducing recidivism, incarceration, and racial disparities,” Dehghani-Tafti said.

The office will also hire a data expert and purchase software needed to analyze data about prosecutions, including how cases are resolved. Dehghani-Tafti campaigned on using data and evidence to drive criminal justice reform.

“It also gives us the capacity for evidence-based prosecution and evidence-based diversion decisions,” she said.

This grant will fund these positions and activities through June 2023, according to the release.

“This grant acknowledges and supports the work of local prosecutors trying to transform the criminal legal system,” said Dehghani-Tafti, who successfully ran on a criminal justice reform platform in 2019, in a statement.

Additional statements from the press release are below.

“I applaud the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s efforts and office for applying and obtaining funding under the DOJ’s FY 2021 Smart Prosecution–Innovative Prosecution Solutions Program,” stated Julius D. “J.D.” Spain, Sr., President Arlington Branch NAACP. “In efforts to focus on mediation and agreement rather than punishment, our community needs alternatives to traditional discipline. This additional funding will assist in developing effective strategies, enhancing our Restorative Arlington Program, and combating and prosecuting violent crime in Arlington.”

“Black Parents of Arlington commends the Commonwealth’s Attorney and her office for taking this important step to develop effective, economical, and innovative responses to crime within our jurisdiction,” said Whytni Kernodle, Co-Founder and President, Black Parents of Arlington. “These funds should help reduce rather than exacerbate racial disparities that are particularly harmful to young Black males, while helping to reduce crime and increase public safety for everyone in our community.”

“This funding will allow us to leverage the innovative and data driven work that Parisa’s office has been focused on since day one to increase efficiency, security and safety for our community,” said Kimiko Lighty, Coordinator, Restorative Arlington. “This grant award is an endorsement of the collaborative spirit that system partners here in Arlington have prioritized and we will all benefit from the investment in updated data systems and coordinative personnel.”

This year has also seen Dehghani-Tafti launch a wrongful convictions unit and partner with a national criminal justice organization to reduce race-based differences in prosecution by 20%.

At the same time, her tenure has seen some controversies. She has been the target of a recall effort, which cites increases in certain crimes such as carjackings — though the same data also shows a decrease in violent sex offenses and a relatively low homicide rate.

Additionally, there have been conflicts with judges over plea deals and dropping charges without an explanation for the record.

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