11 commonwealth’s attorneys form group to back criminal justice reform

By: - July 20, 2020 6:09 pm

The Capitol at dusk. Lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving localities new powers to go after substandard housing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Eleven commonwealth’s attorneys who collectively represent more than 40 percent of the state’s population formed an advocacy group this month to back criminal justice reform proposals, dubbing themselves Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice.

The group has endorsed a range of proposals lawmakers will take up during a special legislative session scheduled to begin on Aug. 18, including restricting no-knock warrants, increased police accountability and an end to mandatory minimum sentences.

“We look forward to the outcome of the Special Session with great anticipation that the results will serve the citizens of Virginia in a fairer, more equitable and less discriminatory way,” the group wrote in a July 13 letter to lawmakers.

The new coalition represents a departure from the advocacy traditionally seen from prosecutors around the state, who are represented by the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, which in the past has often opposed criminal justice reform initiatives.

During a press conference Monday, the prosecutors said the group formed organically, helped along by the election of two commonwealth’s attorneys in Northern Virginia who unseated long-time incumbents by running on explicitly progressive platforms, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in Arlington County and Steve Descano in Fairfax County.

Members of Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice

Amy Ashworth; Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park

Anton Bell; Hampton

Buta Biberaj; Loudoun County

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti; Arlington County and Falls Church

Steve Descano; Fairfax County and City of Fairfax

James Hingley; Albemarle County

Stephanie Morales; Portsmouth

Joseph Platania; Charlottesville

Bryan Porter; Alexandria

Shannon Taylor; Henrico County

Gregory Underwood; Norfolk

Other members have represented their localities for years and pursued reform at the local level, including Greg Underwood in Norfolk and Stephanie Morales in Portsmouth, who both took steps to stop prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession cases only to be rebuffed by local judges.

“As bold as we all are in our own individual localities, we recognize that there is a time where you have to unify around issues; you have to unify around transformative change and you have to realize that when the nation awakens to some of the things that many of us grapple with and deal with on a daily basis, there is a need for us to stand up as a unit,” Morales said.

Members of the group have expressed general support for legislative agendas put forward by Senate Democrats and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. (Democrats in the House are planning to announce their own set of proposals following a series of committee meetings that will begin Wednesday.)

But they expressed “strong commitment” for proposals that would: ensure prosecutors have access to police reports, complaints and disciplinary records; require that a judge sign off on any plan to serve a warrant either at night or without knocking; end to mandatory driver’s license suspensions on drug convictions; give defendants the ability to have past convictions expunged; eliminate mandatory sentences; and clarify “the discretionary powers of prosecutors.”

On the proposal to end no-knock warrants, Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney Anton Bell cited the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, who was shot by police serving a no-knock warrant. Taylor’s family has said police did not identify themselves as they forced their way into the home, prompting Taylor’s boyfriend to begin shooting in self-defense.

“We want to eliminate the possibility of a Breonna Taylor taking place here in the commonwealth,” Bell said.

Members of the group said they wanted to end driver’s license suspensions for drug cases and allow greater access to expunge past convictions to make it easier for people convicted of crimes to keep or find jobs and care for their families.

Democratic lawmakers in the Senate, who have put out a wide-ranging list of reforms they’d like to tackle during the coming session, have embraced the group.

“Historically, we’ve often found ourselves at loggerheads with some of these proposals with the Virginia Association of Commonwealths Attorneys,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, during the press conference. “As we proposed some of these ideas, we found some new support, some new people who were elected and we found that we had common ground with a lot of these folks.”

The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA), which represents all 120 elected prosecutors in the state, has generally opposed the kinds of reforms now under discussion. The positions became an issue on the campaign trail last year in Northern Virginia, with both Dehghani-Tafti and Descano criticizing the group and promising to act as a counterweight in the General Assembly. (On her campaign website, Dehghani-Tafti calls it “the most powerful lobby in Richmond … which every year fights against popular reform legislation in the General Assembly.”)

VACA has recently lobbied lawmakers against legislation that would decriminalize marijuana, raise the threshold for a felony larceny charge to $1,000 and stop police from charging students with disorderly conduct for actions in schools — all bills that failed for years under Republican control of the General Assembly but passed this year under Democratic leadership.

The organization doesn’t propose bills, only taking positions on legislation that’s been filed and only when a large majority of members either support or oppose it, said Jeff Haislip, Fluvanna County commonwealth’s attorney and current VACA president.

After George Floyd’s death, the organization put out a statement condemning the killing and promising to “commit ourselves to have honest conversations with our law-enforcement agencies and our communities to ensure not just that we are policing but that we are policing in the right way, without bigotry or racism.”

But Haislip said it’s too soon for the organization to stake out any position on reforms that are being discussed in Virginia because so far no legislation has been filed and conversations around them remain conceptual.

That said, he found no fault with the group’s members organizing and undertaking their own advocacy.

“They have joined their voices together to have a bigger presence, but they’ve assured me they’re all still members of VACA,” he said. “My feeling is that with the special session coming up, they didn’t know if it would be worth their while to see if they could get a consensus with VACA.”

On some of the proposals, the progressive prosecutors may have more support than they anticipate. Chuck Slemp, a Republican and the commonwealth’s attorney of Wise County, said he watched the group’s press conference and found himself in agreement with several of the legislative ideas they put forward, especially calls for increased police transparency and accountability.

But he said he drew the line when it came to expanding expungement and parole, arguing allowing people to erase crimes from their records could present problems down the line when it came to offenses involving theft or moral turpitude and that expanding parole amounts to lying to citizens about how much time criminals will spend in prison.

“Many prosecutors across the commonwealth welcome smart reforms that make our communities safer and the criminal justice system more efficient,” he said. “However, I am troubled that in the rush to push changes at this time in a special session that we might go too far and do harm to victims or make our communities less safe.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.