Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano approves of criminal-justice changes enacted in 2020, but said more needs to be done.
The reforms aim to reduce mass incarceration and racial and economic inequities in the criminal-justice system while maintaining community safety, Descano told the McLean Citizens Association in a Dec. 16 virtual meeting.
Descano, a Democrat, said he was “really excited” that Fairfax County police by the end of 2021 almost fully will implement a body-worn-camera program, providing cameras to about 1,200 officers.
“I really do feel that body-worn cameras are essential to creating trust in the community,” he said. “They are a great tool for evidence, they are a great tool for police accountability, and quite frankly, they’re also in many ways a tool to make sure our police aren’t being accused of things that they did not do.”
Descano is seeking 65 more staff members to ensure proper case prosecution and review of voluminous video recordings from police body and cruiser cameras. County prosecutors will need to review about 89,000 hours’ worth of body-worn-camera recordings annually, in addition to roughly 60,000 hours of recordings from cameras in police cruisers, he said.
Virginia’s commonwealth’s attorneys only statutorily are required to prosecute felonies, so the funding burden for tackling misdemeanors falls on localities, said Descano, who previously served on the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel. The county police department’s animal-control unit has a larger budget than the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, he said.
County officials are giving his office some annex space in a former warehouse and bus depot about 10 minutes from the courthouse.
“At the end of the day, I’m not trying to put my people in luxury. I’m just trying to get the job done for the people of the county,” Descano said.
Descano worked with General Assembly members during the lengthy special session this fall to increase diversion initiatives, which allow low-risk people to enter rehabilitation programs instead of being incarcerated.
Legislators also enacted police use-of-force reforms, banning chokeholds and making it the duty of officers to intervene if they witness a colleague using excessive force, he said.
Other new laws prohibit “no-knock” warrants and nighttime service of warrants. Another law, which will take effect next March, will limit “pretextual” stops by police on minor violations, which in some communities led to the over-policing of minorities, he said.
Descano said he hoped legislators in the future will address mandatory-minimum sentences for some offenses, which take discretion away from judges. He attempted to assure those participating in the event that such changes would not make the community less safe.
“We’re not talking about just letting people go free willy-nilly,” he said. “We are talking about finding the appropriate sentence for the facts of the case.”
A West Point graduate and former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who later worked as a federal prosecutor, Descano – who garnered significant campaign cash for outside interest groups, some affiliated with financier George Soros – last year narrowly defeated incumbent Raymond Morrogh (D) in a primary and beat independent challenger Jonathan Fahey in the November 2019 election.
Descano continued to criticize his predecessor, saying that upon taking office he discovered the commonwealth’s attorney’s office was “not doing the job they claimed to be doing . . . they were not reviewing evidence before going forward in cases. So I know that innocent people were being put in jail.”
Lack of evidence review in 2019 also caused an attempted-murder case to be dismissed, he said.
“Instead of just kind of burying my head in the sand, as had been done by the previous administration, I’ve actively been working with the [Board of Supervisors] and the county executive’s office to get the amount of resources that we need to actually do the job right.”
Since taking office in January, Descano has faced criticism that his office has stopped prosecuting minor crimes. Some Fairfax County police officers also have been criticial of some of his decisions.
Descano opposes requiring suspects who are not dangerous to the community to post cash bail while they await trial, saying this created a two-tier justice system. Those who cannot afford to pay may spend multiple days in jail, which could cost them their jobs, housing or custody of their children, he said.
Conversely, “if you’re a danger to the community, no amount of money should allow you to get out,” he said.
Descano opposes capital punishment, preferring to seek life imprisonment with no parole in such cases.
“The death penalty . . . doesn’t do anything to keep us safer,” he said, calling it a waste of time and resources. “Every time an appeal comes up, that family, that victim, has to relive this horror over and over again.”
Moderator Patrick Smaldore thanked Descano for fielding a wide range of questions.
“It’s not an easy job [to be] in your shoes. I can see that now,” Smaldore said.
To view the discussion, visit www.facebook.com/mcleancitizens/videos/3781744845218045.
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