It has taken decades, billions of dollars, and thousands of laws to turn the United States into the largest incarcerator in the world. But did you know that there are people who have the power to begin dismantling this machine — even without changing a single law?

Those people are our local prosecutors. In Virginia, local prosecutors are elected constitutional officers called Commonwealth’s attorneys. That means change begins at the ballot box.

Prosecutors decide whether anyone arrested by the police gets tried for a crime, and who gets charged with what. They decide whether juveniles get tried as adults, can force a defendant to face a jury, recommend the sentences people will serve if convicted, and choose whether to bring an action to forfeit and sell the property of people who haven’t been convicted of anything. Their actions can increase the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons, ruin lives by having someone held pending trial without bail, and deepen racial disparities in the criminal justice system that begin with the decision by police whether to stop someone or arrest them.

But our prosecutors also have the discretion to do the opposite.  They have the power to do justice! It's on us to elect (and hold to account) Commonwealth's attorneys who are committed to ending Virginia's dependence on incarceration, addressing issues like substance abuse disorder and mental illness as the public health issues they are, and reducing racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

New ACLU-VA Poll Says Virginians Want Commonwealth's Attorneys Committed to Criminal Justice Reform

first page of Anderson Robbins Research Poll of Virginia voters on Criminal Justice reform

A new poll released by the ACLU of Virginia indicates Virginians overwhelmingly are in favor of progressive criminal justice reforms.

The survey found 72 percent of registered voters think the criminal justice system works differently for different people. Economic inequality was the reason most cited for that opinion, followed by racial inequality.

Click here to read the entire report.


The Decisions Commonwealth's Attorneys Make Matter. Here's why: 

Who is your Commonwealth’s attorney (CA)? Do you know how your CA has used their authority in your community? Commonwealth’s attorneys are the most powerful law enforcement officials in their jurisdiction’s criminal justice system. These locally elected prosecutors can initiate investigations, decide what charges to bring, make immunity and plea bargain determinations, as well as making other critical choices that impact the criminal justice system, on both an individual and aggregate level.

These decisions matter. Yet, there is often a lack of transparency about them. Consistent with national efforts to increase prosecutorial transparency, ACLU of Virginia Investigator Mateo Gasparotto sent several Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) requests to CA offices around the state. His analysis of data obtained from Arlington County highlights how CAs' decision-making affects criminal justice outcomes.

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Commonwealth's Attorney Candidate Briefing Book

CA briefing book.png

In recent history, almost three-quarters of Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates were unchallenged, and voters were left in the dark about the policies they would pursue as prosecutors. The ACLU of Virginia is a non-partisan organization, and we do not endorse candidates. But we do believe people should vote, and that voters should be well-informed and know what Commonwealth’s attorneys do and the important role they can play in reforming our criminal justice system.

Our aim is to educate and engage voters throughout Virginia about their power to elect a Commonwealth’s attorney in their city or county who embraces smart justice reforms. Our goal is to see that anyone who seeks the power of this constitutional office is challenged to persuade voters that they are committed to the pursuit of justice, not just convictions. We hope that all Commonwealth's attorney candidates in Virginia will respond positively to that challenge.

Click here to view the full briefing book.


Commonwealth's attorney elections in Virginia (2019)

In 2019, voters in at least Virginia six cities and counties—including the four largest jurisdictions in Northern Virginia—will decide who will shape the future of their local criminal justice systems for years to come. We've talked to candidates running for Commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax and Arlington counties about their stance on criminal justice reform. Here are their responses.

Arlington County and the City of Falls Church

An info card about Fairfax Commonwealth's attorney candidates Theo Stamos and Parisa Tafti's positions on key criminal justice issues

Theo Stamos' Response to ACLU-VA's Questionnaire:

1. We believe making a specific % commitment to decarceration is also a pledge to constituents that you are willing to be held accountable for doing your part to end mass incarceration. Recently, John Cruezot of Texas set a goal of decarcerating Dallas County by 15-20% in his first term. His plan to do that will be available within the first 90 days of taking office. Will you commit to a specific % reduction in the incarcerated population of Arlington County during the term of office for which you are now seeking election? If so, please indicate what % you think is achievable and why. 

Since becoming Commonwealth’s Attorney, I have adopted several policies with the goal of reducing the rate of incarceration in Arlington County. Most notably, this has included the creation of our county’s first Drug Court program. With respect to first-offense marijuana possession charges, my office waives jail time. Additionally, I am quite confident that no one is serving a sentence in our detention facility on an original charge of simple possession of marijuana. Under my stewardship as CA, the jail population at the Arlington County Detention Facility is the lowest it’s been in more than five years. That is not serendipitous; it is because of sentencing recommendations made daily by prosecutors in my office. I will always look to diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration and we do so on a regular basis. I urge our leaders both at the County level and in Richmond to provide us more resources to allow us to expand programs such as our Bond Diversion program that meaningfully reduce incarceration rates.

I do not think, consistent with my oath of office, I can responsibly promise to reduce the population of the jail by a certain number. As you know, when and whether someone is incarcerated is a process that starts with somebody committing a crime, their being arrested, our reviewing the case and carrying forward with the prosecution. It’s ultimately a judicial determination, not that of the prosecutor, that dictates what sentence is imposed. I believe Mr. Cruezot’s plan is commendable and I support his goals. But he proposes to achieve his goals by deciding which laws to enforce and which laws not to enforce.

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Parisa Dehghani-Tafti's Resonse to ACLU-VA's Questionnaire:

1. We believe making a specific % commitment to decarceration is also a pledge to constituents that you are willing to be held accountable for doing your part to end mass incarceration. Recently, John Cruezot of Texas set a goal of decarcerating Dallas County by 15-20% in his first term. His plan to do that will be available within the first 90 days of taking office. Will you commit to a specific % reduction in the incarcerated population of Arlington County during the term of office for which you are now seeking election? If so, please indicate what % you think is achievable and why.

Yes, at least 15%

Since 2015, there has been a 17% increase in the daily average population of our jail.  Our jail population is higher per capita than neighboring counties and is higher per capita than it was in the 1980s.  All this despite a steadily decreasing crime rate across Northern Virginia. 

Assuming the crime rate remains the same, I will commit to decarcerating my jurisdiction by at least 15% over the course of my first term.   I will do this by: expanding bail reform efforts; reducing unnecessary never-ending felony probation supervision and instead follow the probation supervision guidelines recommended in the 21 Principles; offering fair misdemeanor outcomes to defendants who are deserving of leniency; developing restorative justice programs that don’t rely on a traditional, punitive court process; and by creating and expanding diversion programs to broaden participation and enhance effectiveness.

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WATCH: Theo Stamos and Parisa Tafti debated at the Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Candidate Forum

 

Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax

An info card about Fairfax Commonwealth's attorney candidates Ray Morrogh and Steve Descano's positions on key criminal justice issues

Ray Morrogh's Response to ACLU-VA's Questionnaire:

1. We believe making a specific % commitment to decarceration is also a pledge to constituents that you are willing to be held accountable for doing your part to end mass incarceration. Recently, John Cruezot of Texas set a goal of decarcerating Dallas County by 15-20% in his first term. His plan to do that will be available within the first 90 days of taking office. Will you commit to a specific % reduction in the incarcerated population of Fairfax County during the term of office for which you are now seeking election? If so, please indicate what % you think is achievable and why. 

Yes.

I am proud to say that my office has been at the forefront of innovative criminal justice reforms that have already reduced the jail and juvenile detention populations in Fairfax County to the lowest levels in decades, even as the county's population has grown exponentially since that time. Programs such as Diversion First, Drug Court, the Veteran's Treatment Docket, and Mental Health Court have seen great results diverting those individuals committing non-violent crimes from the criminal justice system and helping those who struggle with drug addiction and mental illness, providing them the services they need and keeping them out of jail, where they do not belong. My office also does not ask for cash bond, thus ensuring that individuals committing minor, non-violent crimes are not stuck in jail because they do not have the financial resources to make a restrictive cash bond. Moving forward, my office will continue to study the relevant data to stay ahead of the curve on criminal justice reform. Under my leadership, Fairfax County has become the safest county in the nation for a jurisdiction of its size while also maintaining its lowest level jail population in decades.

Don't miss an opportunity to engage with the two candidates at the Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Candidate Forum on June 3!

Steve Descano's Response to ACLU-VA's Questionnaire:

1. We believe making a specific % commitment to decarceration is also a pledge to constituents that you are willing to be held accountable for doing your part to end mass incarceration. Recently, John Cruezot of Texas set a goal of decarcerating Dallas County by 15-20% in his first term. His plan to do that will be available within the first 90 days of taking office. Will you commit to a specific % reduction in the incarcerated population of Fairfax County during the term of office for which you are now seeking election? If so, please indicate what % you think is achievable and why. 

Yes, minimum of 5%.

I will commit to enacting policies that result in decarceration. My commitment to real criminal justice reform and to being held accountable is why I wrote my plan for reform, “Progressive Justice.” I would expect to be held accountable at the end of my first term based on how well I implemented my plan. Progressive Justice lays out my plans to end cash bail, stop overcharging felonies, divert drug users, raise the felony larceny threshold, and a whole other host of reforms that will decarcerate Fairfax County. Projecting the effect of these types of policies with reliable data is the surest way to create a decarceration percentage benchmark that is meaningful. 

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