(Updated at 12:10 p.m.) Arlington’s police union is endorsing challenger Josh Katcher in the race for Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Katcher is running against incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in the Democratic primary to determine who has the local party’s nomination to run this fall.
Dehghani-Tafti campaigned on criminal justice reform and won her first term in 2019, after beating Theo Stamos, for whom Katcher previously worked (he also worked for Dehghani-Tafti before leaving the office).
The incumbent has focused her re-election campaign on the reforms she has made, such as ending cash bail, a requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal case, and prosecution for marijuana possession. She has endorsements of several current and former state legislators and members of the Arlington County Board and School Board and the Washington Post.
Katcher has focused on allegations of rising crime, staffing issues within the top prosecutor’s office and crime victims who say they were not respected. He picked up the endorsement from Arlington Coalition of Police (ACOP) because, the organization says, the current relationship between local police and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney is crumbling.
“ACOP has spent the last 7 months attempting to stay out of the Commonwealth Attorney’s race,” it said in a press release. “We understood that whoever won, officers would still need to have a working relationship with the winner. Although that current working relationship is extremely poor, we worried that any statement would make the relationship even worse.”
The organization says it was reluctant to speak up until now — with less than a month before the primary on June 20 — but wants to correct the record about statements Dehghani-Tafti has made on the campaign trail.
In a recent Arlington County Civic Federation debate, the current Commonwealth’s Attorney said her office has a “healthy” relationship with officers and that prosecution rates are down because police are apprehending fewer people.
ACOP says this “could not be any further from the truth” and it “cannot sit by idly while she intentionally misleads the public.”
It listed some of the issues officers say they have with how the top prosecutor’s office currently runs:
On almost a daily basis, members of ACOP email their union representatives with complaints about Ms. Tafti’s office. The most common recurring complaints are about a lack of preparation from the prosecutors, subpoenas not being issued in a timely manner (sometimes never being issued at all), a case getting dismissed without ever contacting the arresting officer, DUIs being plead down to reckless driving with no explanation, subsequent DUIs being plead down to first offenses, and a general lack of communication about cases and outcomes.
Citing felony arrest and indictment data, it countered a claim she made in the debate that police are apprehending fewer people. ACOP says the number of arrests is “the highest it has been for at least six years,” if marijuana possession arrests are removed.
“Felony arrests in Arlington County have remained relatively consistent with the exception of 2020 during Covid,” the release said. “What has not remained consistent is the percentage of felonies that were indicted by the Commonwealth Attorney.”
In the 2019 fiscal year — the year before Dehghani-Tafti took office — approximately 41% of felony arrests were indicted to Arlington County Circuit Court, compared to 15% in 2022, ACOP says, citing recent budget materials.
Dehghani-Tafti provided data the state collected from Arlington indicating a steady decline in arrests made since 2012. while a sharp uptick in simple assaults — from 721 in 2018 to 1,146 in 2021 — may explain an uptick in offenses.
Meanwhile, a sharp uptick in simple assaults — from 721 in 2018 to 1,146 in 2021 — may explain an uptick in offenses.
As for indictments, Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow these are lower because her office is not hitting defendants with several charges related to one criminal incident, a tactic she says prosecutors can employ to force defendants to plead guilty and not go to trial.
“It’s our policy to not stack charges and over charge,” she recently told ARLnow. “We’re not afraid to go to trial and check our evidence with fair and reasonable charges. When we go to trial, we win more than the prior administration.”
Between 2020 and 2022, prosecutors in her office obtained guilty verdicts on cases with one or more charges 75% of the time compared to 64% under Stamos, she said. Guilty verdict for the most serious charges brought forward, across all misdemeanors and felonies tried, was 72% between 2020-22, up from 57% from 2015 to 2019.
(The chart, also provided by ACOP, does not include data for 2017 or 2018. ACOP said it could not find publicly available data for those years. ARLnow also could not immediately find data from those years in budget documents.)
ACOP said it has worked with Katcher for the last decade and see him as “experienced and competent.”
“Josh will be able to lead the office through his experience and mold the attorneys in the office into skilled litigators,” the organization said. “Most importantly, we know Josh will get the relationship between ACPD and the CWA office back on track to where prosecutions are a collaborative effort between the two departments.”
(Updated at 12:30 p.m.) A year ago, Arlington County launched a diversion program for youth and young adults who commit certain misdemeanor and felony crimes.
Heart of Safety is a voluntary program facilitated by Restorative Arlington, a nonprofit that facilitates meetings between victims who choose this approach and the people who committed crimes against them.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney or the local court services unit — which provides services to juvenile court-involved youth and their families — refers victims of crimes who want to stay out of court proceedings to the program.
There, victims and the people who harmed them meet with facilitators and each other to discuss what happened and why, the results of that crime and how the perpetrator can make amends — typically by adhering to a restoration plan to which both parties agree. This approach borrows from longstanding indigenous traditions that have been implemented and studied in some U.S. communities.
The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney has referred eight cases to the program as of November. That figure comes from a Freedom of Information Act request filed last fall by the campaign to elect Josh Katcher, challenger to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in the Democratic primary on June 20. His campaign released its findings on Friday.
Program Executive Director Kimiko Lighty says that the number of cases that have gone through the program is higher. It does not include cases referred from court services unit, those completed in 2022, ongoing cases, or those on who are on a six-month waitlist that she would take if the program had more capacity.
“Heart of Safety is working at capacity right now and has a waitlist,” Lighty says. “There are people who are saying, ‘We would rather wait to have a restorative option than go to court.'”
Participants include people from middle school through 26 years old who committed a fairly broad range of crimes, though Lighty did not elaborate on what kind, citing privacy.
“What they have in common, every single one, is that the person harmed asked for a restorative process,” Lighty said.
Dehghani-Tafti, elected in 2019 on a platform of prosecutorial reform, has said on the campaign trail that Heart of Safety is an avenue for victims to heal and for people who committed crimes to reckon with their actions, demonstrate remorse and commit to making amends.
She tells ARLnow the cases that went through the program “have gone really well” and been consistent with a memorandum of understanding and referral policies governing the program, both of which were provided to ARLnow.
Katcher and his team take issue with how the program has been promoted and how much credit Dehghani-Tafti can take for it, maintaining that people should be skeptical about why Dehghani-Tafti is not more forthright about program outcomes.
His team requested the number and types of cases that have gone through Heart of Safety, the number referred back to the courts, the memorandum of understanding and referral criteria governing the program, and a definition of recidivism.
In response, his campaign says it received the number of cases, eight, and the same documents Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign provided to ARLnow.
“Parisa Dehghani-Tafti wants the community to think of her as a reformer. However, when pressed for information to prove that she’s living up to our community’s expectations for what that means, her office refuses to answer basic questions around the efficacy of her highly-touted commitment to restorative justice,” the campaign manager for Katcher, Ben Jones, said in a statement.
“Her refusal to answer simple questions about a program that she has touted as being one of her signature promises is another sign that she’s not the right person to be trusted with ensuring our community’s safety and security,” he continued.
Arlington residents may soon hear the dulcet sounds of John Legend on the phone, asking them to vote for Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.
The singer, songwriter, actor and media personality is again weighing in on the local race for Commonwealth’s Attorney. An advocate for justice reform, Legend endorsed Dehghani-Tafti in 2019 and has recorded an endorsement for the prosecutor’s reelection this year.
“Hi, this is John Legend,” the singer’s voice will say to those who pick up the phone. “Why am I calling is because Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, your Commonwealth’s Attorney who needs your vote in the June 20 Democratic primary.”
“Parisa has delivered on her promises,” Legend continues. “She stopped prosecuting low level marijuana possession and ended cash bail. Under Parisa’s leadership, Arlington is one of the safest cities in America. Parisa’s work to establish treatment programs and reduce racial disparities has made her a leader on safety and justice reform both locally and nationwide.”
Dehghani-Tafti posted a copy of the recording on social media this morning.
I'm excited to announce the endorsement of singer, songwriter, and philanthropist, John Legend. John's activism has led him to work on justice reform in America and I'm proud to receive his support! Here's the call YOU could receive from him soon! @johnlegend pic.twitter.com/3PaKJr3lj0
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) May 8, 2023
Dehghani-Tafti is facing a challenge in the Democratic primary from her one-time deputy, Josh Katcher.
The challenger has outraised his former boss $105,562 to $66,613, though Dehghani-Tafti has criticized him for accepting money from GOP donors. Katcher, who also describes himself as a justice reformer, has linked a local rise in crime — albeit one in line with national trends — with the alleged “multiple failings” of Dehghani-Tafti’s leadership.
While lacking the star power of John Legend, Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey is among those who have endorsed Katcher.
(Updated at 11:40 a.m.) No defendant under 18 years old has been tried as an adult in Arlington County since Parisa Dehghani-Tafti became Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2020.
For Arlington’s top prosecutor, this is an important reform. It keeps children in a system designed for guiding them, and holding them accountable while providing rehabilitative services.
But Rose Kehoe, the mother of Braylon Meade, would have wanted to see the 17-year-old who killed her son while driving drunk last November tried as an adult. In a letter to state Sen. Barbara Favola (D) — shared with other elected officials and with ARLnow — she wrote the decision not to charge the teen as an adult in Arlington County Circuit Court is one reason they felt justice was not served and they were not heard.
“Meaningful reform requires nuanced thinking regarding the facts of each individual case and applying the law fairly and appropriately,” Kehoe wrote to Favola, who endorsed Dehghani-Tafti in her reelection campaign. “In the case of Braylon Meade, we have no doubt that Ms. Dehghani-Tafti’s political rigidity on the issue of refusing to charge juveniles as adults is what governed this case.”
“This was a campaign slogan that worked to drive voters to the polls in 2019 but when applied in the real world of running her office, it stripped our voice away from us and denied a meaningful discussion on how to seek justice for Braylon,” Kehoe continued.
She said Dehghani-Tafti categorically rejected trying the offending teen as an adult despite being two months shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the offense, “despite the defendant’s history of alcohol and THC abuse, despite him driving 94 miles per hour down Old Dominion Drive, despite him only applying his brakes for one half of one second.”
The teen was sentenced to one year of detention and two years probation, though Dehghani-Tafti sought three years in detention.
In a statement to ARLnow, Dehghani-Tafti empathized with the family but said many conditions have to be met to try a child as an adult, and it is not certain the offending teen would have met those criteria.
“As a mother, I know that the death of a child is life shattering. Braylon’s death is a devastating loss for his family and friends, and I am heartbroken over it,” she said. “I understand why Ms. Kehoe feels the way she does. And I don’t want to say anything that adds to their pain. There is simply no good outcome because the only good outcome would be for Braylon to be home.”
The decision to certify
State code allows juveniles to be transferred to adult court in limited situations and after considering several factors, such as the severity of the crime and if the child has committed other crimes in the past.
Factors that could lead to transfer include if the offense was premeditated and a weapon was used, Dehghani-Tafti said. Factors that may argue against transfer include the mental health of the defendant and the availability of services.
“All this is because we know from both experience and science, kids are different from adults,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “My team and I met with Braylon’s family, listened to them, and carefully considered this case — with the guideposts of justice and the safety of the community — before determining it was not an appropriate case for transfer. We pursued this case with diligence, and asked for the maximum sentence available, three years. After hearing both sides, the court gave 12 months with a period of probation.”
But Kehoe says she walked away from the one meeting her family had with Dehghani-Tafti feeling less considered than the defendant.
A fundraiser for Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Josh Katcher has drawn some notable local names.
Katcher is running in June’s Democratic primary to unseat his former boss, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, as Arlington’s top prosecutor. Both bill themselves as justice reformers, though Katcher is associating a local rise in crime — albeit one in line with national trends — with what he calls the “multiple failings” of Dehghani-Tafti’s leadership.
Garvey emailed supporters Friday evening, inviting them to a fundraiser for Katcher this coming weekend. More from the email, below.
The first local candidate that I am supporting publicly this year is Josh Katcher running for Commonwealth’s Attorney. I hope you will consider supporting Josh as well and perhaps join me at the event on Saturday, March 25 at 3:30 pm. It would be great to see you there.
If you have any questions, I’m happy to discuss the race.
Names also appearing on a flyer for the event include former School Board member Barbara Kanninen, former Rep. Jim Moran, and former County Board candidate Chanda Choun.
Endorsements listed on Dehghani-Tafti’s website include Reps. Don Beyer and Jennifer McClellan; County Board members Matt de Ferranti and Takis Karantonis; former County Board member Mary Hynes; former state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple; current state Sens. Barbara Favola, Scott Surovell, and Dick Saslaw; School Board member Mary Kadera; former School Board members Nancy Van Doren and Monique O’Grady; Dels. Alfonso Lopez and Marcus Simon; Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson; Commissioner of the Revenue Ingrid Morroy; and County Board candidate JD Spain.
Katcher recently criticized Dehghani-Tafti for her decision to prosecute a murder-for-hire suspect who was quickly found not guilty by a jury, after the case was highlighted on ABC’s 20/20. ARLnow hears that NBC’s Dateline is also planning to air an episode about the 1998 murder and the case against the victim’s then-fiancee.