Substance abuse

Liberal prosecutors win reelection in Northern Virginia

Three liberal prosecutors in Northern Virginia emerged victorious in Democratic primary races Tuesday after challengers accused them of botching cases or contributing to rising crime in the region.

The Democratic commonwealth’s attorneys running for a second term — Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in Arlington County and Falls Church; Steve Descano in Fairfax County; and Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County — were first elected in 2019 while pledging to reduce incarceration, curtail the use of cash bail, and address more mental health and substance abuse issues outside the criminal justice system.

Biberaj said in a victory speech Tuesday that her first-term moves coincided with a crime drop in Loudoun County.

“When we reduced our jail population — daily jail population — from 425 to under 250, recidivism did not go up,” Biberaj said. “And you know what that tells us in the community? We were not doing it right.”

All three campaigned this year on furthering their progressive agendas during a second term. Dehghani-Tafti and Descano will not be facing Republican challengers in the November general election in their heavily Democratic jurisdictions. Bob Anderson, a former Republican commonwealth’s attorney in Loudoun County, is challenging Biberaj in the fall.

Dehghani-Tafti said that in four years, she had transformed the Arlington prosecutor’s office into a national model for prosecutors seeking to reform the criminal justice system. At a debate in May, she said she had made more frequent use of a drug court program, instituted a mental health docket and a conviction review unit, and stopped trying juveniles as adults, among other changes.

After casting her vote for Dehghani-Tafti, Ann Breville, 47, said she appreciated the prosecutor’s independence from the police. Breville, a lawyer who works on juvenile justice issues, said that important policy changes take time to implement and that Dehghani-Tafti had earned a second term.

“It’s like steering a giant ship,” Breville said. “You can’t just turn everything around in a minute.”

The Democratic challenger in the Arlington race was Josh Katcher, a former deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Dehghani-Tafti’s office. He said she had mismanaged several high-profile cases just as crime rates — mostly for assaults and thefts — increased in the area and multiple prosecutors departed her staff.

George Obando, 52, said Dehghani-Tafti’s approach to criminal justice spurred him to vote for Katcher.

“We need to be hard on crime. Period,” Obando said, pointing to a rise in carjackings in Arlington and to what he described as light sentences for violent crimes under Dehghani-Tafti.

Descano, an Army veteran who leads one of the largest and busiest prosecutor’s offices in Virginia, ended the practice of seeking cash bail for defendants charged in Fairfax County and stopped prosecuting some offenses such as simple marijuana possession. He said the Virginia General Assembly later followed his lead by turning some of his policies into law, including his moves to stop seeking the death penalty and “third-strike” sentencing enhancements for repeat robbery offenses.

Some judges have criticized Descano’s office for mishandling cases, including a 2021 plea deal that allowed a maximum sentence of 17 years in prison for a 53-year-old man who was convicted of sexually abusing a young relative when she was between the ages of 5 and 10.

Fairfax County Police Department data show that crimes were on the rise in most categories as of 2022. Descano’s campaign said the county remains one of the safest in the country. “Among counties with more than 1 million residents, Fairfax County is at the top of the list for lowest murder rates,” Descano’s campaign said.

Katcher and Ed Nuttall, an attorney known for defending officers charged in police shootings who challenged Descano in the primary, both won endorsements from police unions. Dehghani-Tafti and Descano had the backing of multiple elected Democrats from the county level to the state Senate and U.S. Congress.

At a debate in April, Descano and Nuttall agreed they would not prosecute Fairfax County residents for getting abortions after the Supreme Court’s ruling last year overturning Roe v. Wade, nor seek charges for people purchasing the abortion medication mifepristone, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration but is being challenged in federal courts.

Andrea Bridgeman, 66, cast her ballot for Descano because “he is a strong advocate for women’s health,” she said.

Tom Bognanno, 70, said he voted for Nuttall because crime was rising. “We need the people most vulnerable to crime to be safe — they shouldn’t worry about their kids, they shouldn’t worry about their car parked out on the street,” Bognanno said.

In the Arlington race this year, two political action committees funded by Democratic donor George Soros, Democracy PAC II and Justice and Public Safety PAC, backed Dehghani-Tafti with slightly more than $326,400 in contributions, according to campaign finance records. That was about 60 percent of her fundraising total this cycle: $548,105.

In 2019, Justice and Public Safety PAC spent about $583,000 backing Dehghani-Tafti — representing more than two-thirds of the nearly $747,000 she raised that year — and backed Descano’s campaign to the tune of $392,000. Dehghani-Tafti has praised Soros in public, and her campaign said he “has spent a lifetime and his fortune building democracy here at home and abroad.”

In Fairfax County this year, Justice and Public Safety PAC contributed only $26,500 to Descano’s reelection campaign as of the final campaign finance reports before the primary election, filed last week.

In Loudoun County, Biberaj, a longtime defense attorney before taking office in 2020, was running against Democratic lawyer Elizabeth Lancaster, who said Biberaj had mismanaged the prosecutor’s office. Throughout the campaign, Biberaj emphasized that crime had decreased in Loudoun County on her watch.

Lancaster was an attorney for the father of a girl who was sexually assaulted in a Stone Bridge High School bathroom in Ashburn in 2021. The father was arrested and charged by Biberaj’s office over an altercation at a school board meeting after his daughter was assaulted. He successfully got a judge to disqualify Biberaj from prosecuting his case.

Statistics from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office show that violent crime rates were flat from 2020 through 2022, while some property crimes were on the rise. However, the sheriff’s office said Loudoun County was named the safest in Northern Virginia by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in 2021.

Teo Armus, Olivia Diaz, Corinne Dorsey, Samantha Latson and Mary Claire Molloy contributed to this report.

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