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Arlington prosecutor Parisa Dehghani-Tafti launches reelection campaign

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti at Arlington Democrats election watch party in November 2019, when she was elected to office (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti announced today (Tuesday) that she is running for reelection as Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.

Dehghani-Tafti, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, won her first term in 2019, after beating incumbent Theo Stamos (D) in a contentious and expensive primary that saw more than half a million dollars in donations to the challenger from a justice reform group.

She pledged to fix systemic flaws in the criminal justice system to which, Dehghani-Tafti asserted, Stamos was blind. This included cash bail, a requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal case and punishment for marijuana possession.

“Three years ago, when I first sought our community’s support, I promised that our community would become a model for how to run a criminal justice system that provides safety and justice for all,” Dehghani-Tafti said in a statement. “In just three years, in the midst of a global pandemic, in the face of constant resistance from the forces of the status quo, and fighting against a right-wing recall campaign against me, we’ve achieved that and more.”

The recall effort, which never amounted to a serious threat to her seat, was led by a political group named Virginians for Safe Communities that also targeted as her counterparts Buta Biberaj and Steve Descano in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, respectively.

Today, in a press release announcing her reelection bid and on Twitter, Dehghani-Tafti says she has made good on many of her campaign promises.

Her office launched Virginia’s first Conviction Review Unit to investigate wrongful conviction claims, after the General Assembly passed a law expanding the pool of defendants who can challenge convictions.

It started a program, dubbed “the Heart of Safety” program, to find alternatives to prosecution in certain misdemeanor and felony cases committed by juveniles and young adults. It also partnered with local and national nonprofits to create diversion programs that reduce racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and received a U.S. Department of Justice grant to run restorative justice program.

In her Twitter thread, she added that her office never asked for cash bail and stopped prosecuting simple marijuana possession before the General Assembly decriminalized it. She says her office assigns one prosecutor to preside over a case from start to finish and allowed defenders to access court records electronically. Over the last three years, the jail population has dropped by 30%, as have certain types of crimes.

Additionally, she says, her office did not certify a single child as an adult in 2021 and Arlington’s behavioral health docket now allows individuals experiencing mental health crises to obtain treatment without incurring a criminal record.

“We did all of this while making sure our community remains safe,” she said in today’s statement. “While homicides rose 30% nationwide, in our community they dropped by 50%. In 2021 and for about 16 months, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church recorded zero homicides. This year, to date, one.”

Critics, however, have asserted that crime is up under her tenure. They accused Dehghani-Tafti offering criminals lenient plea deals and letting them go free as a result of bond reforms. In one case, an Arlington County Circuit Court judge rejected her plea deal — a local example of a broader judicial tug-of-war between judges and reform-minded prosecutors — and Dehghani-Tafti fought for prosecutorial discretion, with support from a criminal-justice organization.

In response to these claims, Dehghani-Tafti has maintained that her reforms allow prosecutors to focus on serious crimes, such as the convictions her office obtained in two serial rape cases, convictions in three child sex abuse cases, guilty pleas in three homicide cases — with two dating back from 2018 — and an indictment in a 23-year-old cold case homicide.

She has also provoked the ire of police officers on occasion. We were previously told officers generally approve of the way her office pursues violent crime charges, but police groups do worry about the number of plea deals in which felony charges are downgraded into misdemeanors.

Additionally, police organizations demanded an apology after she alleged an instance of police brutality in a campaign mailer in 2019, and this year, they traded barbs with her after she claimed that officers mishandled the search of a suspect who was jailed after a series of break-ins at an apartment complex led to two men being fatally shot in the head.

Since the state elected Republicans Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares, Dehghani-Tafti has staked out positions contrary to specific provisions in the governor’s new program to combat gun violence and reduce homicides, and has sparred with Miyares — with whom Stamos now works — over prosecutorial reforms.

Her announcement comes with the endorsement of a long slate of current and former local and state elected officials, including Arlington County Clerk of Court Paul Ferguson and former candidate for Lt. Governor and former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi.

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