Amy Ashworth

Amy Ashworth speaks to supporters at the Democratic party victory party in Manassas in November 2019 after winning the election for Comonwealth's Attorney of Manassas and Prince William County.

Five commonwealth’s attorneys from Northern Virginia have joined with six other prosecutors from around the state in forming an advocacy group to back criminal justice reform proposals.

The group, called Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, 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 news conference Monday, the prosecutors said the group formed organically, helped by the election last fall 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.  Other regional prosecutors who have joined the group are Amy Ashworth of Prince William County, Buta Biberaj of Loudoun County and Bryan Porter of Alexandria.  Ashworth and Biberaj were also elected for the first time last fall; Porter has served since 2014. 

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 of Delegates 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 mandatory driver’s license suspensions for 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, Ky., 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 developed a wide-ranging list of reforms for 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 has 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.”

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, 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.”

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury.

(14) comments

Citizen52

You have to please your political donors and the organizations who work to elect you, so, I guess that’s what those folks wanted. Reform would be great if these folks tackled root causes of crime rather than symptoms. I guess that’s much harder and not as sexy as saying they’re “progressives” and are seeking “transformational change.” Trouble is, its change that only addresses outcomes rather than root causes.

Catherine Christine

An extremely important part of this story, “ 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.”

CJE

[tongue]Why are they concerned now? Why weren't they concerned 25 years ago by Bill Clinton's Three-Strikes-You're-Out Crime Bill? Why weren't they concerned by Mayor Tim Kaine's Project Exile 20 years ago? Why were't they concerned about The Patriot Act 18 years ago? Why weren't they concerned about "If You See Something, Say Something" 10 years ago? Why weren't they concerned about the Obama Administration militarizing America's police forces 5 years ago?

Iwouldntgiveabean

Learn the difference between the Federal and State government before confusing the two.

todd6263

Mayor Tim Kaine was part of the federal government? News to me.

CJE

It's ubiquitous across federal, state, local governments, that's why.

CJE

Project Exile was / is a federal / state / local program begun in Richmond while Tim Kaine was on the City Council to reduce handgun violence.

InsideCommenter

The reality is that most of the facts regarding mass incarceration private prisons and the like where not really fully analyzed as it takes year to study effects until the past decade or so this has prompted a change in outlook towards reform while still ensuring safe communities.

InsideCommenter

were*

OBLUE

what a mess

Diego

Fellow Citizens,

It’s very simple, follow the money. The new progressive Commonwealth’s Attorney’s from Fairfax and Arlington were bought and paid for with George Soro’s money just like the looney prosecutors in Chicago, St. Louis, SanFrancisco and Philadelphia. The Commonwealth Attorneys in the VACA were elected by the citizens of their respective jurisdictions and represent their views not those of progressive George Soros. The other Commonwealth Attorney’s listed in the “new” Progressive Association are simply serving their constituents who are overwhelmingly Democrats. Elections have consequences. Elect morons get the kind of justice you deserve.

InsideCommenter

We have these new prosecutors for nearly a year, and there has been no noticeable uptick in crime and we are seeing improved returns. In addition crime since the late 1980s and early 1990s has been going down significantly, despite bumps along the way. George Soros is just a right wing boogeyman, while they turn blind to the DeVos family, the Mercers and, and Charles Koch who fund most of their ventures.

JimiWeaver4

And by electing morons I’m positive that you are referring to the current imbecile in the Oval Office, but only for the next six months thank God.

CJE

Fifty years ago, 1970, the grandparents of today's GenZs were rioting and Richard Nixon was being demonized. Twenty years later, 1990, the same counterculture activists were moving into McMansions and buying SUVs.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.