Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: We Need a Commonwealth’s Attorney Committed to Reform

By Parisa Dehghani-Tafti

For nearly 20 years, as a public defender, innocence attorney and law professor, I’ve worked to identify and fix the mistakes of the criminal justice system. My experience in criminal justice is deep, broad, and diverse. I’ve practiced at all levels, from trial to the Virginia Supreme Court. I investigate serious crimes: arson, rape, murder — without the assistance of government resources. I obtained the first DNA exoneration in D.C., which unearthed a lab analyst’s false testimony, leading the FBI to launch an investigation of hundreds of cases.

This work requires me to know state laws and constitutions and complex areas of federal and Constitutional law. I have to be up to speed with forensic science, including the most recent advances in DNA testing technology. I also have to understand the research behind wrongful convictions, including issues with eyewitness identification, interrogations, and false confessions. I have seen the ways the system can and does go wrong, giving me valuable 20/20 hindsight. I can distinguish between good and junk science, spot a false confession, and train prosecutors not to replicate mistakes.

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I decided to run for Commonwealth’s Attorney because I noticed that our criminal justice system here in Arlington and Falls Church City doesn’t reflect our values. Although we are one of the most forward-thinking, reform-minded, and inclusive communities in Virginia, we are lagging behind on criminal justice reform. So I knew I had to step up.

In Charlottesville, cash bail hasn’t been used for almost 20 years because it unfairly keeps poor people jailed while rich people walk free. Yet in our community, we still use this unfair and ineffective system. No one should sit in jail just because they can’t afford to get out. And people who pose a danger shouldn’t be released, no matter how much money they have. As Commonwealth’s Attorney, I would work with our legislators and pretrial services to end cash bail.

Prince William County and other jurisdictions have established mental health courts to divert those with mental illnesses from the criminal justice system. We have not. The Bureau of Justice Assistance provides funding for communities to create mental health diversion programs. But here, we leave that money on the table. As a result, over half of our jail population is being treated for mental illness. Though we have a well-run jail with an excellent sheriff, it is simply not a place to effectively deal with mental illness. Those with mental illnesses should be treated, not incarcerated, and as Commonwealth’s Attorney, I would work to establish a mental health docket.

Nearby Loudoun County has a restorative justice program in place, which studies show leaves victims more satisfied and decreases recidivism. We have no such program here. I would work to implement a restorative justice model in nonviolent and juvenile cases where the victims agree to it.
While Commonwealth’s Attorneys in other jurisdictions signed a brief supporting Governor McAuliffe’s plan to restore voting rights to 200,000 returning citizens, our Commonwealth’s Attorney opposed the Governor and supported a lawsuit to block him. This doesn’t reflect our community’s values. Further, restoring voting rights is associated with lower recidivism, which would make us safer. I support the restoration of voting rights for those who have served their sentences.

Over the course of just six years there have been over 3,200 prosecutions for marijuana possession in our jurisdiction. These cases don’t make us safer and disproportionately affect people of color. We have one of the worst racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests in the Commonwealth: a black person is eight times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession in Arlington and Falls Church, even though these populations use marijuana at the same rates. We can do better. I wouldn’t waste resources prosecuting simple possession of marijuana, and would instead focus on serious crimes with real victims. And, I would use available grant money to collect and share data to better understand how to address racial disparities.

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I’ve lived in this community for 12 years; my children attend public schools here; I’ve served on the steering committee of the Arlington Democrats; and I serve on the Criminal Justice Committee of the local NAACP. I know that our community is compassionate, forward-thinking, and diverse. We should be a leader on criminal justice reform, not lagging behind. And I believe we can get there. We can keep our community safe and pursue justice for victims and survivors without sacrificing our values. We can build a criminal justice system that is humane, transparent, and fair. But to do it, we have to elect a Commonwealth’s Attorney who is committed to reform. That’s why I’m running and I hope to earn your vote in the primary on June 11.


Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is seeking the Democratic nomination for Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church in a primary this June.

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