As I round out my first term in office, I want to reflect on the reforms we’ve made to help keep Fairfax the safest community of its size while building a fair and just system. There’s been extensive coverage of some of the issue-based policy reforms we’ve introduced (like ending cash bail and ceasing marijuana prosecution, among others), but structural reforms that impact the day-to-day business of the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney are just as significant to the implementation of our justice system. These four internal, procedural reforms are an overlooked piece of the justice system that greatly impact individual lives and community safety.
One of the first changes we made was putting the office on the path to being the right size - doubling our staff from 40 to 80 to ensure that we could give appropriate attention to each case and seek the right outcome for the parties involved, instead of being forced to clear dockets at any cost. When I started as Commonwealth’s Attorney, the office had been woefully under-resourced for half a century. While jurisdictions with similar populations of 1.1 million often have 200-300 attorneys, Fairfax County was only budgeted 34, and spent less per capita on the prosecutor’s office than the next 10 most populous Virginia counties. Fortunately, when presented with this stark deficit, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors was extremely helpful in securing additional funding to help us on our path to being the right size. We were able to hire new staff to handle our county’s case volume, giving our attorneys additional capacity to review evidence, meet their ethical obligations, and reach the right outcomes in each case.
With these extra resources, we were able to help fix previous “shortcuts” in the justice system, including the series of missteps by the prior administration that led to the wrongful incarceration of Elon Wilson, a DC firefighter who spent almost 2 years behind bars based on an illegal traffic stop. We overturned Wilson’s conviction and got him home to his young son.
In addition to hiring a dozen more attorneys, we also specifically focused on building a support team from scratch to help with our record-keeping and data program. Our administrative staff and paralegals digitize case information (every court date, motion, email, and more) and track it in our database, eProsecutor, which we implemented after inheriting an entirely paper office. These information-tracking systems substantially improve our record keeping and accuracy in the courtroom, and are also core to our leading data program, which we use to improve transparency and prosecutor decision-making.
Support staff play another critical role by fulfilling discovery orders, one of the most time-intensive -- but foundational -- pieces of preparing a case. Virginia updated its discovery statute in 2020, moving up the timeline and drastically increasing the amount of evidence prosecutors are required to turn over to defense before trial. In addition to the change in the law, as part of our commitment to justice, we continue to turn over more evidence than is required for cases in General District Court. This long-overdue change underpins a foundational value of our justice system by ensuring defendants have the time to prepare for what they’ll face in court, but it does create a substantial, new, obligation on our office.
Fairfax County handles dozens of discovery orders a day for thousands of cases a year, and our paralegals collect, review, and prepare evidence that includes photo and video recordings, police reports and witness statements, forensic analysis and autopsies, text messages, emails, phone calls, and much more. Fairfax County also recently mandated the use of police body-worn-cameras (BWC) – thousands of hours of new footage that can be an essential tool for justice, but must be diligently reviewed and distributed. Though we aren’t perfect, we have taken great strides to give our prosecutors the resources, support staff and systems to consistently meet comprehensive discovery requests for the first time.
My office has also made critical changes to the structure and hierarchy of our attorneys, creating specialized teams of attorneys for high priority issues, including sex crimes and gun violence, to better support our most vulnerable victims. With specialized attorneys, we’ve been able to work with police to lead the Commonwealth in pursuing ESROs (emergency substantial risk orders - red flag laws), and have won technical rulings that help prosecute child sex crimes. We’ve also hired specific managers and built oversight and training into our office culture, so for the first time, new prosecutors are learning constantly from experienced attorneys and senior management is directly aware of every case that passes through the office.
With the extra resources afforded to us by the county, we’ve been able to build an office that can devote necessary attention to the evidence in each case, prevent new injustices and overturn old ones, and give specialized support to victims. Internal office reforms certainly get less news coverage than flashy policy rollouts, but the regulations that govern how our office runs and prosecutes cases are just as important to keeping the community safe and pursuing justice for individual families.