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Gavel (Flickr photo by Joe Gratz)

This Saturday, Arlington County’s top prosecutor, its Circuit Court clerk and some attorneys will help people who want their criminal record expunged for free.

The clinic will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday (Dec. 3) at Arlington Presbyterian Church, located off Columbia Pike at 918 S. Lincoln Street. It will provide everything attendees need in one place to request arrests that did not result in convictions be removed from their record.

“Even if you’ve been arrested and not convicted, that arrest can follow you every time you apply for a job, school, or an apartment,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “That harms people, their families, and the community. This clinic is one way we can mitigate that harm and give people a chance to live productive lives.”

She says this is the first time Arlington has offered an opportunity like this, but she hopes it isn’t the last.

“We wanted to do this for a long time but had to delay because of Covid,” she said. “Prince William has done it recently but I am not aware of any other jurisdictions in Virginia, though it is possible.”

Courts do not identify who is eligible to have their record expunged, so the aim of the clinic is to let people know what is available and what is possible, she says.

“The biggest difficulty is twofold: people don’t know they’re eligible and don’t apply, or others who are not eligible and apply are surprised to discover they are not,” she says. “So, one of our main goals is public education.”

Ahead of the clinic, her office partnered with the public defender’s office, the defense bar, local churches, and other community organizations to reach people who may be eligible.

Attorneys will provide pro-bono assistance and clinic sponsors are covering the $86 filing fee on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Attendees need to bring the arrest warrant or final letter of disposition for each charge they would like to be expunged.

Currently, Virginia law limits expungement to narrow circumstances, Dehghani-Tafti says. The Virginia General Assembly passed a new law that would expand eligibility for record sealing, but the changes won’t take effect until July 1, 2025. Even so, there is still room for improvements, Dehghani-Tafti adds.

Clinic sponsors include the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, the Arlington Coalition of Black Clergy and Black Parents of Arlington, as well as local nonprofits Bridges to Independence, Offender Aid and Restoration, Arlington Thrive, Arlington for Justice and the D.C.-based Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, where Dehghani-Tafti used to serve as legal director.

OAR Associate Deputy Director Mustafa Saboor said in a statement that this clinic is an important first step in helping people overcome unjust barriers.

“Our criminal legal system is overly punitive, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the way arrest records destroy people’s ability to work and live,” Saboor said. “Because Black and Brown communities are overpoliced throughout this country, barriers to work because of arrest records fall disproportionately on those communities, further entrenching deeply racist lines in this country.”

Dehghani-Tafti’s former deputy prosecutor announced on Tuesday that he will be challenging her in the 2023 Democratic primary.

Flickr photo by Joe Gratz

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Josh Katcher (via Josh for Arlington/Facebook)

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti now has a challenger — someone who once worked for her.

Former Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Katcher will go up against the incumbent in the Democratic primary in June. Katcher was hired as Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney by Theo Stamos in 2012 and he was promoted to deputy in 2021 near the outset of Dehghani-Tafti’s tenure.

“I am running because my opponent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has not only broken her promises on reform prosecution, she also has broken the office in the process,” he said in an email to supporters, reprinted on Blue Virginia.

In a separate statement, tweeted out by Washington Post reporter Teo Armus, Katcher says he brings “unique insight” to the “multiple failings under the current administration’s leadership.”

“Crime is rising in Arlington,” Katcher said in the announcement. “There is no doubt about it and we have the data from the Arlington County Police Department to prove it. People are concerned about their safety and their property. Denying this or falsely alleging it is part of some media-driven narrative doesn’t solve the problem.”

Katcher said his first two promises are to acknowledge what he says is rising crime in Arlington and to increase transparency by releasing data housed in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney within a year of taking office.

“The stakes could not be higher for our community,” Katcher said. “This election is not about whether we should be engaged in reform prosecution. The question is really whether we are going to miss this generational window of opportunity to get it right. Every victim, witness and defendant who comes through the doors of the courthouse deserves a Commonwealth’s Attorney that delivers real reform and real justice.”

Reported property crimes offenses increased 7.4% over 2020, according to the 2021 ACPD crime report, mostly driven by fraud and theft, but also increases in vandalism, robbery and burglary. In 2021, ACPD says it arrested several suspects who were “frequently responsible for multiple cases within Arlington or regionally.”

Crimes against people increased 24%, driven by increases in simple and aggravated assaults, an upward trend since 2018, according to ACPD stats. The police department, meanwhile, has cut some services, such as follow-up investigations on “unsolvable” property crimes, in the face of staffing shortages.

In interviews with ARLnow and statements on Twitter, Dehghani-Tafti says that crime is not, in fact, trending upward. She points to low murder rates and to the fact that Arlington’s overall crime rate remains well below state and national averages.

In response to concerns about property crime sprees and repeat offenders, she has said the approach for the last 40 years is to blame, as is a lack of investment in diversion programs.

Dehghani-Tafti beat incumbent Theo Stamos in the 2019 Democratic primary, with a platform focused on criminal justice reform. She pledged to fix systemic flaws in the criminal justice system such as cash bail and punishment for marijuana possession.

Since taking over, her office has launched a wrongful conviction unit and a restorative justice program for young adults. Her critics, however, say she offers criminals lenient plea deals and lets them go free as a result of bond reforms.

Ahead of the primary, Katcher says he faces “an uphill road” to victory because Dehghani-Tafti will “receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from PACs outside of our community.”

She has received a substantial donations from the Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. By contrast, Katcher promises a “people-powered” campaign.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary in June will face off, in November, with any independent or Republican challengers who may emerge over the next year.

Katcher was born and raised in Fairfax County, according to his website. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia and briefly worked in litigation in New York City before becoming a local prosecutor.

He currently lives in Arlington with his wife Jill, their children Juliet and Jamie, and their dog Louie and has served in a variety of roles within the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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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. Read More

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Police looking for evidence where shots were fired at officers along S. Wakefield Street in Barcroft (staff photo)

(Updated 4:45 p.m.) Gov. Glenn Youngkin has announced he’s increasing funds to police departments in a bid to reduce homicides, shootings and violent crime in Virginia.

The move, part of a new policy initiative from the Republican governor, will have implications for Arlington police, prosecutors and local restorative justice initiatives.

More than $100 million is slated to go toward state and local agencies to fix wage compression, increase recruiting efforts — including an expedited training program for police officers moving from one department to another — and provide more equipment and training, per a press release.

“The Arlington County Police Department (ACPD) has not been in touch with the Governor’s Office regarding yesterday’s announcement,” spokeswoman Ashley Savage tells ARLnow.

While the impact on ACPD is still hazy, Arlington Coalition of Police President Randall Mason confirms ACPD’s struggles with recruitment, retention and pay compression, which were exclusively reported by ARLnow last year, mirror those highlighted in Youngkin’s announcement.

Although the 2023-24 budget will play “the biggest role” in staffing, he said, Mason projects that Youngkin’s sped-up, eight-week training academy could be a boon, as it would make it easier for officers to switch from Maryland and D.C. departments to Arlington’s.

“Getting more officers onto the street quicker would benefit both officers and the public,” he said. “ACPD could see a significant benefit from the lateral academy depending on what happens in the upcoming fiscal year.”

Of ACPD’s 377 authorized, sworn police officers, 278 are able to provide solo law enforcement services, Savage said. Sixty positions are unfilled and 39 officers are in a training or have light duty status.

The police department’s 16% vacancy rate is higher than almost all of ACPD’s regional competitors and that gap is poised to widen, Mason said.

“We are on pace to lose more officers than we hire for the second straight year, increasing our vacancy rate even further,” he said. “That is in spite of ACPD’s recruitment staff traveling all over the East Coast, up to 400 miles away, trying to find new officers.”

Recruitment and retention efforts in Arlington (via Arlington County)

Arlington’s 2022-23 budget includes merit-based increases, signing bonuses and work week reductions to try and address these challenges, but Mason says this doesn’t address another gripe officers have with pay — the county’s pay system.

Unlike other jurisdictions, which reward years of service with set pay increases, Arlington has an “open range” system where officers who have less seniority can end up getting paid more than an officer in their same rank, which is the case for a majority of ACOP members, he said.

“You don’t feel valued for the number of years you’ve been here, when someone who’s been here less time is making more than you,” he said.

Additionally, the hiring challenge comes down to the high cost of living.

“Arlington County is a very expensive place to live and work. Over 60% of ACOP members don’t live in the county,” he said. “It’s ACOP’s opinion that Arlington County’s failure to account for Arlington’s high cost of living is the main explanation for ACPD’s vacancy rate being higher than regional competitors.”

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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)

(Updated at 4:50 p.m.) The Arlington police union is pushing back on accusations that officers mishandled the search of a suspect who is now linked to a double murder.

In a rare public rebuke of Arlington’s top prosecutor, the Arlington Coalition of Police this afternoon sent out a press release accusing Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti of “ineptitude” and “deflection of blame.”

The barbs stem from a 2020 case against Francis Rose, who is currently in jail in Alexandria after a series of break-ins at an apartment complex there reportedly led to two construction workers, a stepfather and stepson described as “innocent bystanders,” each being fatally shot in the head.

As ARLnow exclusively reported last week, Rose was released from Arlington County jail this past February after the 2020 case against him fell apart when a judge ruled that evidence was obtained during an unconstitutional search of his bag. With the gun and the drugs allegedly found in Rose’s bag disallowed as evidence, prosecutors dropped the charges against him, including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Rose spent nearly two years in jail awaiting trial before being freed when charges were dropped.

“As court records show, our office attempted to proceed on those charges, but during a suppression hearing, a judge ruled that the police had performed an unconstitutional search and, as the law required, suppressed the evidence in the case,” Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow last week. “Obviously, we could not prove a case without the evidence, and therefore dismissed it.”

“My heart breaks for the families and loved ones of the people killed this weekend,” she added.

Dehghani-Tafti subsequently said on Twitter, in response to criticism from the Virginia Republican party, that she’s “not casting blame on anyone” for the case falling apart.

The Arlington Coalition of Police, however, suggests that Dehghani-Tafti should be taking more of the blame, accusing her of “attempting to throw police officers under the bus for a lost [evidence] suppression hearing.”

The full statement from the union is below.

Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti’s recent statements regarding the suppression hearing for Francis Rose, intentionally worded to cast fault on the officers involved, were based on self-preservation and deflection of blame.  Unlike the Commonwealth Attorney, the Arlington Coalition of Police ordered the transcript of the hearing to have a full understanding of what happened before making public comment.

Prior to the hearing, the Assistant Commonwealth Attorney handling the case believed there would be “no problem” regarding the suppression and believed the officer’s actions were lawful.  At the time of the suppression hearing, Mr. Rose had spent approximately two years in jail awaiting trial. The Commonwealth Attorney opposed giving him bond on multiple occasions.  If the Commonwealth Attorney believed the actions of the officers were unlawful, opposing bond and holding Mr. Rose for two years would be unethical.

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Scene of attempted bank robbery at 4075 Wilson Blvd (staff photo)

From Philadelphia to Los Angeles to nearby Fairfax County, and here in Arlington, prosecutors running on criminal justice reform platforms were elected in a wave.

But since they’ve taken office, some have questioned whether their approach to crime is too soft. A recall election in San Francisco ousted its chief prosecutor, and last year, Arlington’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti also faced a recall campaign, though it never seriously threatened her tenure in office.

Since she took office in January 2020, some types of crime have increased. At the same time, the pandemic pushed her, defense attorneys and the sheriff’s office to reduce the number of people jailed, and staffing shortages led to a cut in some police department services, such as follow-up investigations on property crimes it deemed unsolvable.

Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow that when crime is up, the “tough-on-crime crowd” says to “be tougher” and when it’s down, they say to keep jailing people because “it’s working.” But she believes progressive policies and expanding diversion programs for nonviolent offenders can better help them stay on the right side of the law.

She emphasized that her office takes violent crime seriously. The violent crime rate in Arlington was below the state and national averages in 2021. Meanwhile, police officers working with Dehghani-Tafti generally approve of the way her office pursues violent crime charges, Arlington Police Beneficiary Association President Rich Conigliaro tells ARLnow.

Fewer prosecutions of nonviolent crimes 

Although the police don’t believe Arlington has a major crime issue, the department has seen more crime sprees in the last few years, Conigliaro said. There was an overall 8.5% increase in property crime in 2021 compared to 2019, according to ACPD’s annual report.

“Group A” rates of property crime (via ACPD)

Police have dealt with cases where the defendant had committed multiple property crimes, such as burglaries, in jurisdictions across Virginia. In one such case, a Maryland man, who was out on bail for charges in Fairfax County, was arrested in Arlington on similar charges, including stealing and spitting on an officer after his arrest.

After that incident, Dehghani-Tafti’s office dropped two charges and downgraded a felony charge into a misdemeanor as a plea agreement. His 180-day jail sentence in Arlington was suspended and he was extradited to Maryland to face prior charges there, according to court documents.

Dehghani-Tafti’s office has downgraded felony charges into misdemeanors for cases that “normally would not have seen that level of a plea bargain being agreed upon” on multiple occasions, Conigliaro said. Detectives are concerned with this trend, he added.

Brad Haywood, the chief public defender in the county, also said Dehghani-Tafti’s office seemed less likely to press felony charges where a misdemeanor charge may apply, such as with nonviolent or minor property and drug cases, he said.

Haywood said her office seems more willing to give people with behavioral issues a second chance by ensuring they receive treatments instead of jail time, unlike her predecessor Theo Stamos. Stamos, who is now working in the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares, declined to comment for this article.

Generally, there have been fewer felony indictments under Dehghani-Tafti compared to Stamos, according to performance data gathered in the latest proposed budget from the Commonwealth’s Attorney office. The number of indictments issued by the Circuit Court decreased 37% from 713 in fiscal year 2019 to 449 in fiscal year 2021. The number of sentencing events dropped by almost 57% from 354 in fiscal year 2019 to 153 in fiscal year 2021.

The number of criminal misdemeanor cases that appeared before the General District Court also decreased by 23.4% from 3,476 in fiscal year 2019 to 2,662 in fiscal year 2021.

A table shows the performance data since fiscal year 2018 (via Arlington County)

In Dehghani-Tafti’s view, prisons cannot effectively rehabilitate an offender. She cited a meta study published by the University of Chicago Press last year that showed incarcerations are less effective in reducing recidivism.

Dehghani-Tafti believes the biggest change she brought to Arlington was creating new diversion programs for adults. Her office is taking part in the Motion for Justice Project, which connects participants to social services and treatments, as well as partnering with the nonprofit Offender Aid and Restoration to provide diversion programs.

“I came in guided by the idea that safety and justice are not opposite values, they are rather complementary values,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “And that we can treat people like people and crime like crime.”

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Morning Notes

Looking down Lynn St. on a rainy day (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Debating the Arlington Way — “Their unsigned flier asks whether the push for new housing types marks ‘the end of the Arlington Way,’ defined as a ‘long-standing tradition of public engagement on issues of importance to reach community consensus.’ The new ‘Arlington Way 2.0,’ it accuses, involves ‘lack of respect,’ ‘failed analysis’ and ‘governance problems’ as ‘partisans grab control of decision-making and steamroll the public.’ Those harsh words made me wonder, must the Arlington Way always mean ‘you get your way?'” [Falls Church News-Press]

CA Says No to Hypothetical Abortion Prosecutions — Arlington and Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is among “more than 80 elected attorneys from around the country [who] vowed not to prosecute individuals who seek, assist in, or provide abortion care.” [Common Dreams, Vox]

Gunfire in Green Valley — “3700 block of Four Mile Run Drive. At approximately 2:35 a.m. on June 24, police were dispatched to the report of a dispute. Upon arrival, it was determined that following an ongoing dispute between known individuals, the suspect entered the victim’s home. The victim confronted the suspect and a verbal altercation ensued outside the home, during which the suspect brandished a firearm and discharged it. No injuries or property damage were reported.” [ACPD]

Dozen Officers Graduate from Academy — “Family, friends and colleagues gathered on June 22 to celebrate the achievements of Arlington County Police Department’s 12 newest officers as Session 146 graduated from the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy. During the graduation, the officers took their solemn oath to serve and protect the Arlington community and safeguard the Constitutional rights of all.” [ACPD]

Hit-and-Run Driver Causes I-395 Crash — From Dave Statter: “#caughtoncamera: For the 2nd time in less than 24 hrs a crash at I-395S Exit 8C. 3 cars involved, with the one causing it driving off.” [Twitter]

Awards for Arlington Students — “ACC/Arlington Tech TV Production students Lina Barkley & Ellie Nix take the 1st place gold medal for VA at the National SkillsUSA Television (Video) Prod. contest in Atlanta. Congrats to our National Champions! We are so proud!” [Twitter, Twitter]

CIP Hearing Planned Tomorrow — “Comments are welcome on Arlington’s proposed $3.9 billion FY 2023-2032 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) during a County Board public hearing on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.  The public hearing will begin at 7 p.m. and those interested may register to speak in person or virtually by visiting the County Board website.” [Arlington County]

Fairfax Mulls Route 29 Name — “It’s possible Fairfax County will not be following Arlington’s lead in renaming its stretch of U.S. Route 29 as ‘Langston Boulevard.’ Fairfax County supervisors wish to rename Lee and Lee-Jackson Memorial highways… but a county survey – with an admittedly small sample size – found the public would prefer they just go with the roads’ numbers.” [Sun Gazette]

It’s Monday — Rain in the morning and afternoon. High of 81 and low of 70. Sunrise at 5:47 am and sunset at 8:39 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Arlington County Courthouse (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

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.

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An Arlington County police car with lights flashing (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(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.”

Bond reforms 

Eliminating cash bail was a campaign promise of both Dehghani-Tafti, whose office does not ask for cash bail, and her counterpart in Fairfax, Steve Descano, who formally eliminated cash bail in 2020.

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.

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Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti at an NAACP and Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020 (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

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.

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.

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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.”

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