Q&A with Commonwealth’s Attorney Candidates

Q&A with Commonwealth’s Attorney Candidates

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. Dehghani-Tafti was first elected to a four-year term in November 2019.  She came to the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney with a twenty-year record of criminal justice reform as an innocence protection attorney, a public defender, and a law professor.

Q.  If you could pick just one reason you are running for Commonwealth’s Attorney, what would it be ?

A. To make the traditional justice system more rehabilitation, more fair, more accurate.

Q. What is your top priority?

A. I have been doing the work of my priorities for the last two years: I helped establish a mental health court, I created a restorative justice system, I worked on reducing racial disparities, and made sure we don’t incarcerate more people than we need to. So many of these pieces link together. The system is so not in line with what we know works. 

Q. [Your opponent, Josh] Katcher has highlighted your office’s high staff vacancy rates and you have accused him of misrepresentation. He has said there has been a 50 percent turnover (14 prosecutors) in your office. You have said there are currently two vacancies. Can you reconcile these numbers? Do you know why they left? What difference does it make?

A. Katcher keeps changing the numbers he uses. The number of vacancies we have where we can actually hire attorneys into is much lower. We are not in an unusual situation compared to other service agencies who have had recruitment and retention issues. It’s misleading to imply something is wrong in this office. Two left to become judges, three left to get better paying jobs, work from home. I would point out that in the period from June 2020 until now the Clerk of the Court’s staff has had an 80 percent turnover. I am a problem solver so I have looked around the office to build a pipeline for people and hired paralegals to redistribute the workload.  And you ask what difference does it make? This is also an opportunity. Don Beyer once told me with his experience as ambassador that some people weren’t on board with him, and it took a team. Same thing for me. It is an opportunity to get a new team. We’ve done so many things in our day to day work. It takes years and now we’re just about to soar. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding— we take a higher percentage of cases to trial than the prior administration, we have a higher conviction rate, and a higher conviction rate for violent offenses..

Q. Katcher has stated that ACPD stats show crimes against people in Arlington are up by 24 percent since 2018 but you have stated Arlington is a safe place to live and this has been backed by some studies. How do Arlington’s numbers compare to nationwide trends or other similar jurisdictions to Arlington around the country?  

A. Arlington is one of the safest places to live in America. Our own chief of police says you can’t look at the raw numbers in Arlington because we have such low crime rates that one incident can have a big impact on the overall numbers [percentages]. I haven’t taken a look at the comparisons with other jurisdictions but crime is up all over the country.

Q.  Do you think Arlington residents feel safe?  What do you think is their top safety and justice priority?

A. The doors I’m knocking on show that people do feel safe, from Green Valley to where I’m living. A lot of people are concerned about the mental health crisis, so many people in jail are mentally ill. They are excited about the new Crisis Intervention Center, beds opening, the prospect of mobile outreach.

Q. You have said that over 25 percent of Katcher’s individual campaign donations are from Republican donors who have given thousands to Trump. How do you know? What difference does it make?

A. I am not saying he is a Republican but that he is supported by extreme Republicans. The difference it makes is that people who support extreme Republicans don’t support reform.

Q.  Katcher’ brochures indicate he will bring real justice prioritizing the needs of victims. How is this different than your statement that you have empowered victims with a prosecution model that prioritizes compassion and transparency?

A. I have already done everything he says he is going to do like prioritizing drug treatment and creating mental health courts.

Q. Katcher has said you have never tried a case as a Commonwealth’s Attorney that you have think tank experience instead of practical real life experience. What difference does this make?

A. He has no compunctions about saying things that are false. I’ve never been in a think tank. I’ve always been a litigator. If you are talking about prosecuting in Arlington it is true I have never tried a case here but what he says is misleading. I’ve had over 20 years of litigation experience.

Q.  Do you agree with legalizing marijuana?

A.. Yes, for adult recreational use but not for kids, not using while driving, and not in public any more than drinking.

Q. Do you believe in cash bail?  Why or why not?

A. I do not. The federal government hasn’t had cash bail in decades.

Q.  How do you balance the rights of the accused with the rights of the victim?

A. It is a delicate balance and not always obvious. The perspective has to be what can I do and what should I do as a prosecutor while also taking in the needs and desires of the victims. The reason we have a prosecutor is to do justice which requires we don’t bring frivolous charges we can’t prosecute. What is at the end of the process; what is the impact on the community? Sometimes a long sentence is best but sometimes rehabilitation is best in the long term.

Q.   If you had the controversial case to do over again of Braylon Meade, the teenager who was killed recently in an auto accident by a drunk teenager, would you have done anything differently?

A. I didn’t want to do more harm to this grieving family.  My decision would have been the same but my biggest regret is that my intent to do no harm didn’t come through to them. I did speak to the family and I answered multiple phone calls and emails from their friends and supporters. I think the mother wanted the defendant to be transferred to adult court but he didn’t meet the criteria. There would never have been a transfer. I could have done the politically expedient thing and put the family through a traumatic day in court reliving all of the details when I already knew the outcome but that’s not what a leader does. 

It was clear that someone would have to bear the brunt of the decision. I was willing to be the lightning rod for my team. Normally when I sit down with victims I don’t talk about legal issues. The family was asking questions about the legal process in this case. It is regretful they thought I was only talking about the defendant instead of feeling their loss. Her son died and the legal system is not designed to take care of it. But my decision would have been the same in hindsight. 

Q. Katcher has said his approach is prosecutions on violent crimes, gun crimes, sexual offenses and crimes against children while diverting cases involving the mentally ill, the unhoused, people dealing with addiction and kids doing dumb things out of the criminal justice system. What would your approach be?

A. You know my approach. I honestly don’t know what his approach would be. He says some things on his website and other things to whatever group he is talking to. He wants to bring back people from the old administration before I came, people I didn’t keep on.

Q. Why do you think the police union recently endorsed Katcher?

A. Institutions don’t like the status quo to change. I’m trying to change the criminal justice system from operating on emotion to operating on science, evidence-based. The political slogans right now don't reflect how cases are being handled. Katcher can’t name a single reform he has done. No reform group has endorsed him.

Q. What question would you like to answer that I haven’t asked?

A. I have a record but future plans are most important: working with Department of Human Services to double the size of the mental health courts, create more diversion programs, work with OAR on meaningful community reentry work instead of bail, building an expungement clinic, advocate for common sense gun laws, victim restitution fund in a timely way. There is a lot on the table to do. We’ve laid the foundation and are only just getting started.