A new restorative justice program launched last week in Arlington, aimed at diverting those under the age of 26 from the criminal justice system.
The “Heart of Safety” program, part of the county’s Restorative Arlington initiative, held its first training session early last week. The program’s goal is to find alternatives to criminal prosecution for certain misdemeanor and felony crimes committed by young adults.
Through a conferencing process managed by trained professionals and facilitators, it will allow both the accused and the victim or victims a choice in how to best deal with the crime committed. The main factor for eligibility is the participants’ commitment to the process, as opposed to determining eligibility based solely on the crime involved.
In practice, however, leaders tell ARLnow that initially “Heart of Safety” will likely focus on certain types of crime to start.
“The determining factor for eligibility is participant commitment to the process,” Kimiko Lighty, Restorative Arlington executive director, wrote to ARLnow in an email. “This program is voluntary at every stage so the engagement of the parties most directly affected by the harm, the person harmed and the person responsible for harm, is the determining factor NOT the type of harm.”
“Initially we will likely focus on assault and battery and grand larceny, as the data mapping with Impact Justice determined that those are the charges with the largest racial and [ethnic] disparities,” she continued. “We believe families are eager for an alternative to traditional criminal prosecution that can maintain public safety by holding young people accountable without saddling their future with a criminal record,.”
The Memorandum of Understanding for “Heart of Safety” was first signed in February by Arlington’s top prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who campaigned in 2019 on creating a restorative justice program of this nature. The program is being aided by $340,000 in federal funding from the U.S. Justice Department.
In attendance at the training session along with Restorative Arlington leaders were personnel from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and members of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit.
The first session “offered information, discussion, and trust building between the two county offices and Restorative Arlington,” according to the press release.
Lighty said the session also dealt with “how restorative justice allows survivors to participate in ways traditional systems do not, how it reduces recidivism in ways that traditional systems do not, and how it provides young people the tools to handle conflict in ways that traditional systems do not.”
The second training session will be held this summer, but an exact date has yet to be finalized.
Additionally, an agreement that would refer Arlington Public Schools students directly to the program is still be worked on. It’s currently in the draft stage and it should be finalized soon, says Lighty.
It has taken more than two years for the promised program to get up and running. Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow that a lot of studying, planning, and designing were needed prior to launching something that’s never been done in the county. That includes working with prior victims of crime and those who were formerly incarcerated, to help establish “Heart of Safety” policies and procedures.
(Updated at 9:40 p.m.) The man who was arrested on Sunday for robbery and carjacking after an inter-jurisdiction car chase on I-395 was awaiting trial in Fairfax County for stealing a car, court records show.
Laysohn Jones, 21, of Suitland, Maryland, had a hearing date set for May 2 for the auto theft charge, as well as a preliminary hearing for a failure to appear and charges for driving without a license and eluding police. He had been “released on recognizance,” according to court records, or released without bail when he allegedly committed the crime.
And two weeks ago, a man who has committed a slew of petty thefts over the last five years — from the Springfield Mall, Tysons Corner Center, and a CVS pharmacy and Macy’s in Pentagon City — was arrested on nearly a half-dozen charges.
Ronald D. Thomas, 24, is now being held without bond in the Arlington County Detention Facility for his most recent alleged crimes — spitting on an officer, grand larceny, petit larceny, trespassing and identify theft — as well as an outstanding warrant from Fairfax County for grand larceny. Court records indicate he also had a felony second-degree assault charge from Maryland and a misdemeanor assault charge in D.C.
These cases have some blaming recent bail reforms, championed by many prosecutors who were elected on pledges to reform the criminal justice system.
“Repeat criminals are crossing jurisdictional lines and facing no consequences in first, second and third jurisdictions due to progressive policies like abolishing bail,” said Sean Kennedy, a spokesman for Virginians for Safe Communities, an organization that launched efforts last year to unseat the Commonwealth’s Attorneys for Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties.
“They go on to commit more crime elsewhere and those jurisdictions don’t understand their full criminal history because the same prosecutors have downgraded serious charges to light misdemeanors,” he continued. “More and more people are suffering because of that.”
Those who champion reforms to the criminal justice system, however, say repeat offense cases like these have long existed and systems like jail and bail did not deter people from offending over and over again. They add that these policies did nothing to solve underlying problems driving the criminal behavior, such as drug addiction and unstable housing.
“The inclination is, ‘We need to send him to jail for longer.’ We tried that before — that doesn’t work either,” said Arlington’s Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood.
He refuted the idea that there is a “progressive prosecution angle” at work, referencing the ongoing political tug-of-war between reform-minded prosecutors like Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, whose changes have prompted some backlash, and those who advocate for more stringent prosecution and punishment.
“This is a problem that has been an issue for decades in the U.S.,” Haywood said. “This is an issue, very broadly, with the criminal justice system.”
In the case of the carjacking, Randall Mason, the president of the Arlington Coalition of Police, said Fairfax County’s release of the alleged carjacker put officers, the driver and the public at risk of injury.
“He went out and did the same thing again, and it put Arlington officers at risk because pursuits are inherently dangerous,” Mason said. “Luckily everyone was safe, and no citizens injured.”
Police are concerned about and frustrated by the pattern of people who are arrested for serious offenses and released without bond, Mason said.
Dehghani-Tafti countered that her office does seek to hold people deemed to be dangerous or a flight risk.
“It’s the danger you pose, not whether or not you have cash, that should control whether you are released pre-trial or not,” she said.
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares visited Arlington yesterday (Thursday) to launch a political fund aimed at unseating progressive prosecutors.
The reform-minded approach of “left-wing liberal prosecutors” has “directly resulted in higher crime in our communities and they must be stopped,” Miyares said in a statement that specifically called out Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.
The goal of the Protecting Americans Action Fund, he said, is to “elect District Attorneys who will enforce the law and prosecute criminals, instead of this warped version of criminal justice, which is endangering Americans.”
Miyares did not name-drop Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Descano’s Arlington counterpart, but coming to Arlington was enough to prompt her to mount a defense of her prosecutorial approach.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church fired back on Twitter with a volley of tweets.
2/16 Through the campaign & since his election, the AG targeted, often by name, Commonwealth’s Attorneys in NOVA, whose counties actually are the safest & have the lowest crime rates of any large jurisdictions in Virginia and country. This is particularly true of my jurisdiction.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) March 24, 2022
Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system by reducing racial disparities in prosecution as well as recidivism and incarceration, while investigating wrongful convictions. Last year, there was an effort to recall her that accused Dehghani-Tafti of offering criminals lenient plea deals.
Miyares contends crime is up in places like Northern Virginia, under the leadership of Descano, Dehghani-Tafti and Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj. But Arlington’s top prosecutor says these jurisdictions “have the lowest crime rates of any large jurisdictions in Virginia and country.”
She reiterated the crime trends she touted earlier this year, including that her jurisdiction recorded no homicides in 2021 — down from three homicides in 2020 and two in 2019.
(Two reported deaths last year were in federal jurisdiction, including the police officer who was stabbed, shot and killed outside the Pentagon and the security contractor who died at the U.S. State Department’s National Foreign Affairs Training Center.)
“I’ve long resisted the claim that the drop in homicide is due solely to my policies. Instead, I’ve credited the work of our County Board, local delegation, police department, school board, defense bar, public defender, and community and faith groups in teaming up to prevent crime,” she said.
“And yet, the AG and other anti-reformers have no hesitation in cherry picking any individual incident or any uptick in any crime, however slight, to mislead the public and paint a false picture of our reform achievements,” she continued.
Some crimes were trending up during her election year, 2019, and continued upward during her first year of office. This includes an uptick in property crimes, driven largely by carjackings, according to 2020 crime data — the most recent available from Arlington County Police Department.
This uptick prompted more police patrols and coordinated regional response in 2021, which may explain why, according to preliminary ACPD data for last year, carjackings dropped from 16 in 2020 to eight, while car thefts dropped from 323 in 2020 to 306.
Arlington County has created a new youth program aimed at diverting young people who commit crimes from the criminal justice system.
The program, called “Heart of Safety,” is the first county program established to find alternatives to prosecution in certain misdemeanor and felony cases committed by juveniles and young adults, according to a press release from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the top prosecutor for Arlington and the City of Falls Church, announced today (Tuesday) that she signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Arlington Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit and a county initiative called Restorative Arlington to found Heart of Safety.
Restorative Arlington began in 2020 to introduce to the public schools system, legal system and community new ways of holding people accountable for their crimes without putting them through the court process.
The founders of Heart of Safety say it will give victims a say in what they need to feel that justice has been served, while holding those who committed the crime accountable and reducing future crimes in the long run.
“Heart of Safety is about survivors’ rights, youth rehabilitation, and crime prevention; for survivors, it’s the peace of mind of taking charge of their recovery; for young people, it’s a second chance to make right what they did wrong; and for the community, it’s an investment in crime prevention,” said Dehghani-Tafti, who campaigned on a justice reform platform in 2019.
People who commit crimes and victims can volunteer to resolve their case through a conferencing process. Either the victim or the person who committed the crime must be 26 or younger when the incident took place to participate.
Cases have to be identified and deemed appropriate for the conferencing process, which is overseen by a trained facilitator. This person talks with both parties to listen to their experiences, understand what they need and determine if they should meet. If so, the facilitator brings the participants together to draft a restoration plan and follows up with them later to ensure they completed the plan and are satisfied with the outcome.
If this process doesn’t resolve the case, the Commonwealth’s Attorney can open a prosecution case.
“Heart of Safety embodies the priorities and interests of our community and is in full alignment with best practices in restorative justice diversion,” Restorative Arlington Executive Director Kimiko Lighty said. “We are grateful to be able to offer this long-awaited option for people who have been harmed in our community.”
Restorative Arlington worked with volunteers — victims of crimes, formerly incarcerated persons, teens and young adults — over the course of two years to establish Heart of Safety, according to the county.
Leaders of Restorative Arlington, meanwhile, are working with Arlington Public Schools to draft an agreement that would allow schools to refer students directly to Heart of Safety. The county says this will allow schools to hold students accountable for wrongdoing while keeping them out of the criminal justice system.
“Restorative Arlington’s Heart of Safety program will provide a great new option for diverting some youth from the traditional court process,” said Earl Conklin, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit Director. “It is an alternative model that has proven successful for both the youth and those who have been harmed.”
(Updated at 11 a.m.) An Arlington County jury found a 43-year-old man guilty of stabbing three people in Rosslyn three years ago.
Wondwossen Kassu stabbed two men sitting at a table inside Gateway Park in May 2019 and a third man walking by. The jury convicted him on three counts of malicious wounding.
Kassu is scheduled to be sentenced on May 6 in the Arlington County Circuit Court. Malicious wounding is a felony that carries a minimum prison sentence of five years and a maximum of 20 years.
“This was a tough case, but my office will never shy away from prosecuting such acts of violence,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, in a statement. “We are grateful for the jury’s verdict, and we were happy to provide some measure of closure to the victims.”
On May 21, 2019, Kassu approached two men sitting at a table inside the park and began talking to them, according to the 2019 police report. Then, he stabbed them and a third man who happened to be nearby.
Two of the victims were able to flee and get help. All three required hospitalization, but survived the attacks.
More on the crime from an Arlington County Police Department press release at the time:
At approximately 9:27 p.m. on May 21, police responded to the report of multiple stabbings in Gateway Park located at 1300 Lee Highway. Upon arrival, officers located the suspect and took him into custody without incident. During the course of the investigation, officers located three male victims suffering from lacerations. The victims were transported to area hospitals and all are reported in stable condition.
Based on the preliminary investigation, it appears two of the victims were sitting at a table inside Gateway Park when the suspect approached them and initiated a conversation before producing a knife and stabbing the victims. The third victim was walking in the area when he came upon the initial assault. The suspect then turned his attention towards the third victim and stabbed him as well. Two victims were able to leave the scene to seek assistance. They were located by responding officers in the 1900 block of Fort Myer Drive and the 1800 block of N. Nash Street.
Dehghani-Tafti, elected as the top prosecutor for Arlington and Falls Church on a criminal justice reform platform, has faced some local skepticism — culminating in a recall campaign organized by a Northern Virginia political group last year — about whether she is sufficiently tough on crime. Dehghani-Tafti’s office started sending press releases about major convictions earlier this year.
An Arlington County jury found a 66-year-old man guilty on Monday of killing his son in Green Valley in 2020.
Marshall Stephens Jr., 45, was found alone in his vehicle in the 1900 block of S. Lowell Street with a single gunshot wound to the back of his head on April 23, 2020. His father — Marshall Stephens — was found guilty of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Stephens, who is scheduled to be sentenced April 1, faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and maximum of life behind bars for the murder charge and a minimum of three years for the firearm charge, prosecutors say.
“While there is nothing we can do to bring back Marshall Stephens, Jr., we are grateful for the jury’s verdict and attention to this case,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We hope this helps bring some level of closure to the surviving victims as they continue their difficult healing process.”
The full press release from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney is below.
On Monday January 24, 2022, an Arlington County jury unanimously found Marshall Stephens, 66, guilty of first degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Stephens was found guilty in connection with the April 23, 2020, shooting of his 45-year-old son, Marshall Stephens, Jr. in the Green Valley neighborhood of Arlington. The victim was found alone in his vehicle, with a single gunshot wound to the back of his head.
Successful prosecution was possible because of a careful investigation on the part of the Arlington County Police Department and collaboration between ACPD and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
“While there is nothing we can do to bring back Marshall Stephens, Jr., we are grateful for the jury’s verdict and attention to this case,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We hope this helps bring some level of closure to the surviving victims as they continue their difficult healing process.”
First degree murder carries a statutory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison; use of a firearm in the commission of a felony carries a statutory minimum sentence of 3 years.
Stephens is scheduled to be sentenced on April 1, 2022, in the Arlington County Circuit Court.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is welcoming a drop in car-related crimes, which have trended upwards during the pandemic years.
Preliminary data from the Arlington County Police Department indicates carjackings dropped from 16 in 2020 to eight in 2021, while car thefts dropped from 323 in 2020 to 306 in 2021. Finalized numbers will be published later this year in ACPD’s annual crime report.
“After a temporary rise in car thefts in the first half of the year, our office helped to spearhead the formation of a regional task force, resulting in a marked decrease in car-related crimes in the second half of the year,” Dehghani-Tafti, the top prosecutor for Arlington and the City of Falls Church, said in her most recent newsletter. “Most of the recent car thefts are a result of cars left unlocked, unoccupied and idling.”
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, carjackings soared in Arlington — from one case in 2019 to 16 in 2020 — and the rest of the D.C. area. This uptick prompted more police patrols in the first half of 2021 and, by the summer, a coordinated regional response.
From January through June, ACPD recorded 160 motor vehicle thefts and from July to December, ACPD recorded 146 similar crimes, which is “a good percentage drop,” Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow.
Per the 2020 annual report, motor vehicle thefts have a ways to go if they’re to fall back to levels last seen in 2018 and 2019, when there were 171 and 227, respectively.
Dehghani-Tafti said she called attention to the drops in car-related crimes — as well as the zero recorded homicides last year and the lower rates of gun violence compared to other U.S. cities — in her newsletter to provide a counterpoint those who are saying crime is up under her tenure.
Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system by reducing racial disparities in prosecution as well as recidivism and incarceration, and investigating wrongful convictions. Last year, there was an effort to recall her that accused her of offering criminals lenient plea deals.
“[T]he more general point I was making in the digest is twofold: the first is that, contrary to some of the overheated rhetoric in certain quarters, crime remained low and we’ve kept our word in devoting resources to serious crimes, hence our record in the last year, including tackling a number of cold homicide and rape cases; second, I wanted to be intellectually honest that a lot of people deserve credit for crime being low, and to give them thanks for it,” she tells ARLnow.
Specifically, she thanked the Department of Human Services and the county government for funding social services, the Arlington School Board for diverting kids from the criminal justice system — it removed police officers from schools in 2021 — as well as ACPD for its deescalation work and community policing and the Sheriff’s Office for helping to reduce the jail population.
She says the jail population “consistently remains at its lowest levels in Arlington history,” although it has increased from a record low of 209 in June 2020 to 265 in December 2021.
As additional evidence of crime remaining low, she pointed to the zero homicides recorded in 2021 and relatively low rates of gun violence compared to other jurisdictions.
ACPD confirmed that no 2021 deaths have been ruled a homicide, which would be down from three in 2020 and two in 2019. There is, however, an open investigation into the deaths of two people in a Ballston apartment in December.
Two reported deaths in Arlington in 2021 fall outside ACPD’s jurisdiction and reporting: the man who stabbed, shot and killed a police officer outside the Pentagon this summer and the death of a security contractor at the U.S. State Department’s National Foreign Affairs Training Center.
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.”
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.
A man died Tuesday after being found unresponsive in the medical unit of the Arlington County jail, prompting a regional law enforcement investigation and statements from local leaders.
Clyde Spencer, 58, was rushed to Virginia Hospital Center, where he later died. He is the sixth inmate at the jail to die over the past six years.
The last reported inmate death, in October 2020, remains under investigation. A regional body called the Northern Virginia Critical Incident Response Team is now investigating Spencer’s death.
Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti, Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Sheriff Beth Arthur — whose office runs the jail — all issued expressions of sympathy for Spencer’s family and support for the CIRT investigation in statements released Friday morning.
From a county press release:
Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti, along with the Sheriff and Commonwealth Attorney, issued the following statements today regarding the death investigation at the Arlington County Detention Facility earlier this week.
“Mr. Clyde Spencer passed away Tuesday at the Virginia Hospital Center after he was taken there when he was found unresponsive at the Arlington County Detention Facility. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Mr. Spencer’s family and friends in this time of loss,” said de Ferranti. “We support the decision to call for an independent investigation from the Northern Virginia Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), a regional team that investigates deaths or serious injuries involving law enforcement officers in participating jurisdictions in Northern Virginia.”
“We offer our condolences to the Spencer family,” said Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur. “Incidents like these are taken very seriously by my office, and me personally. We will fully cooperate with the investigation.”
“My heart goes out to the families suffering from the loss of their loved ones,” said Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We are diligently working with the CIRT and the ACPD on these cases and hope the community and the families involved understand that we cannot reveal the content of the investigations, and the Virginia rule of professional conduct 3.6 prohibits me from commenting on a pending case.”
At the completion of a comprehensive, thorough, and impartial investigation, the CIRT will present the facts and evidence to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.
Arlington’s top prosecutor is seeking an attorney to lead a new unit that reviews potentially wrongful convictions.
The unit — the first unit of its kind in Northern Virginia, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti — launched a little more than seven months ago.
At the time, Dehghani-Tafti said that no full-time staff would be assigned to only this unit because there wouldn’t be enough work. In her initial announcement, she said it would be led by Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cari Steele and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Wiley.
That has changed in the last half-year, with the position evolving into a full-time job “in its own right,” she tells ARLnow.
“It’s to the County Board and County Manager’s credit that they recognize the importance of the Conviction Review Unit,” Dehghani-Tafti said, adding that “the money is coming from the County Manager’s budget.”
Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected on her pledge to reform the local criminal justice system, made setting up such a unit a campaign promise when she ran for office in 2019.
She said her office regularly receives requests to review cases from a variety of sources, including convicted individuals, their legal counsel and various advocacy organizations.
“We take time to review these requests in a thorough manner,” she said. “This involves a lot of work and requires us not only to go through our own files, but also to seek files and records from as many sources as possible, reviewing forensic testing, and sometimes seeking out additional forensic testing.”
Initially, she said she thought this could be done in house, and the approved 2021-22 budget for her department only requested four new positions, all assigned to reviewing footage from body-worn cameras. (The Arlington County Police Department began wearing cameras in December 2020.)
“I try to be conservative with the budget, so I was hesitant to ask for additional [employees] until and unless I had the workload to support it,” she said. “I’m particularly sensitive to the reality that in this era of Covid, the County is facing immense funding demands from multiple fronts, but in this case, the work of the Conviction Review Unit has truly become a full time job in its own right.”
As for the positions related to body-worn cameras, those are already filled and the attorneys strained, she said.
“We also are finding that the BWC requires more of a workload than four attorneys can handle,” she said. “As I anticipated in March, based on the hours of BWC we were seeing, we definitely need more than the four additional attorneys.”
Dehghani-Tafti initially told the County Board that prosecutors will review about 15,000 hours of body worn camera video evidence this year — roughly equivalent to all the working hours of more than seven attorneys. The Office of the Magistrate, which reviews criminal conduct complaints, said it has the resources needed to review footage, however.
The conviction review position Dehghani-Tafti is seeking to fill, officially titled Commonwealth Attorney II, would pay between $91,500 and $140,000 annually. Whoever fills the role would spend his or her time engaged in a “specialized, time-consuming legal process” involving the following responsibilities, according to the job listing:
- Identifying and defining the involvement of the former police officers in the casework and the conviction of defendants prosecuted by the Office of the CWA;
- Conducting a thorough review of files, records, evidence and testimony in those cases;
- Testing the validity of evidence (e.g., analyzing chains of custody);
- Determining acts and sources of any intentional or unintentional wrongdoing in the development and prosecution of these cases;
- Recommending courses of action based on review of these cases (e.g., exoneration);
- Determining if and when a victim should be contacted regarding the conviction review process; and
- Performing other tasks that may be assigned as needed to complete the post-conviction review process.
A recall effort targeting Arlington’s top prosecutor is reportedly gaining some traction.
In August, a political group named Virginians for Safe Communities (VSC) launched a recall effort against Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, as well as her counterparts Buta Biberaj and Steve Descano in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, respectively.
Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system. Her tenure has included efforts to reduce racial disparities in prosecution, investigate wrongful convictions and decriminalize marijuana possession. But VSC says her approach has made Arlington less safe.
And now, the group is expanding its outreach with mailers — sent to homes in Arlington this week — as well as a new website dedicated to Dehghani-Tafti and an electronic recall petition. The website is reportedly attracting visitors and signatories, recall organizers say.
“VSC has begun to send out mailers to voters educating them on Parisa’s radical and dangerous agenda and dereliction of her duty to uphold justice, protect victims, and enforce the laws of the Commonwealth,” VSC leader Sean Kennedy says.
“Our effort in Arlington County and the City of Falls Church is ramping up substantially in the near future and will include direct communication with voters on various platforms as well as public forums,” Kennedy continued. “FireParisa.com is generating a great deal of traffic already in [this] first week and we are well on our way to collecting the requisite 5,500 signatures to protect Arlington by removing her at trial.”
The mailer accuses Dehghani-Tafti of lenient treatment of criminals, referencing plea deals with a man allegedly caught with 50 lbs of marijuana at National Airport and a man charged with throwing two dogs off a balcony to their deaths.
In a response, Dehghani-Tafti denied VSC’s claims that she is neglecting her prosecutorial duties and linked the group to other recall efforts in the region.
“These are lies being pushed by the same Trump, dark-money supported political operatives and right-wing groups that have sought to intimidate elected school boards all over Northern Virginia for simply doing their jobs. It’s part of a broader scheme nationwide where they abuse outdated recall laws because they can’t win at the ballot box,” she said.
VSC’s activity has been covered by the New York Times, which described Kennedy as a Republican political operative and noted that another backer, former Trump administration appointee Ian Prior, is “leading a petition drive to recall school board members in Loudoun County over critical race theory.”
The recall effort comes for Descano as he’s facing blowback from judges for what they characterize as overly lenient plea deals in child sex abuse cases.
2/ The ruling comes the same week another judge blasted prosecutor Steve Descano’s office for a plea deal in another child sex abuse case. https://t.co/46CBQFx1Ux
— justin jouvenal (@jjouvenal) September 24, 2021
What’s happening between Descano and the judge’s bench is another example of the judicial tug-of-war between progressive, reform-minded prosecutors and judges.
VSC has to gather enough signatures to have a court review its case against the three prosecutors. A special election would be held if the group both gets those signatures and a judge rules in its favor.
In addition to paid and volunteer canvassers, the group has launched electronic petitions. Kennedy said it’s a common misconception that signatures for Virginia candidates or official recalls must be pen-and-paper. During the pandemic, six candidates for elected office successfully sued the Virginia Department of Elections and State Board of Elections allowing for the electronic collection of signatures.
“Recent Virginia Supreme Court rulings, statutory changes in Richmond, and Virginia Board of Election settlements and rule changes have substantially altered those requirements,” he said. “Our very experienced counsel have concluded confidently that digital signatures (which are signed until penalty of perjury and using a signature tool, not text alone) are valid.”