Two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Fairfax County and city of Fairfax commonwealth’s attorney differed sharply at a June 3 debate over the incumbent’s record and which crimes, if any, should not be subject to prosecution.
Incumbent Raymond Morrogh said he had tried tough cases, including those of the Beltway snipers and University of Virginia serial killer Jesse Matthews.
“I’m very experienced in the courtroom and very able,” he said. “A lot of people think the prosecutor’s job is to put people in jail – I’ve never thought that was a central part of my job. My job is to make this community healthier by, one, keeping it safe and, two, reaching my hand out to help everyone I can.”
Challenger Steve Descano said his life and career had been dedicated toward helping others. Witnessing the local criminal-justice system “frankly shocked me,” he said.
“We’ve stagnated, we’ve become entrenched,” he said. “We need to change that . . . I’m the only one in this race with a plan for real criminal-justice reform for our system.”
The debate, held at First Baptist Church of Vienna, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area, the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Virginia Interfaith Center and Fairfax County NAACP.
Forum moderator Sakira Cook, director of the justice-reform program of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, asked the candidates whether they would commit to reducing the county’s incarcerated population by a certain percentage.
Morrogh declined, but said he already is working to do so and that the jail population is at a record low.
“Very few people belong in jail,” he said. “Only those who are dangerous or continually steal from people.”
Descano said nearly 46 people eligible for incarceration in the county are required to pay cash bail, and promised to end the practice. Morrogh said such payments were not requested by his office, but required by magistrates.
Morrogh declined to agree to a suggestion not to prosecute thefts worth less than $750, citing frequent victimizations of senior citizens. He said his office has a supervised-release program and a diversion program for first-time shoplifters.
“You get a free bite of the apple to begin with,” he said.
But Descano said he would refuse to prosecute felony larcenies under $1,500.
“I’m not going to ruin somebody’s life and put them in jail for stealing an iPhone or making a single mistake,” he said, adding, “I’m going to look wherever possible to charge more misdemeanors instead of felonies.”
Asked if they would decline to charge in minor misdemeanor cases, such as trespassing or loitering, Descano said he would drop charges for simple possession of marijuana, but Morrogh would not name any misdemeanors he would not charge.
“We are a nation of laws, not men,” he said. “I’m not a super-legislator. I can’t and should not decide what laws to prosecute and what not to prosecute, nor should Steve.”
In a round of yes-or-no questions, neither candidate favored having an independent prosecutor investigate police shootings and neither would agree not to charge juveniles as adults in some cases.
Descano graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and earned a law degree from Temple University. He served as a federal prosecutor during the Obama administration and now is chief operating officer and general counsel for Paragon Autism Services. He also was among the founding members of the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel.
Descano said his reform plan is based around equality and justice.
“The idea is that we need a criminal-justice system that’s open and transparent and accountable, not shaded in darkness,” he said. “We need a criminal-justice system that takes a holistic approach, that builds up our community and makes us stronger, instead of one that brings us down.”
Morrogh, a graduate of George Mason University School of Law, was a criminal-defense attorney in private practice before becoming a Fairfax County prosecutor in 1983. He has served as commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County and the city of Fairfax since 2007.
Morrogh said his office opened the discovery process more than a decade ago, has special courts for veterans and people with mental illnesses, and a drug court that offers offenders alternatives to jail. He also touted efforts to reduce the incarceration rate and said the county’s jail population was the lowest in decades.
The county’s Juvenile Detention Center was built to accommodate 100 youths, but currently is occupied by fewer than 20 who have committed serious crimes, he said.
“We’re working to improve the system, we’re working to make it better, we’re working to heal those who can heal,” Morrogh said. “But I’m also here to protect you, should the worst happen . . . I bring progressive policies to this office. I always have. If you look at my record and what I stand for, you’ll see that in every instance I’ve done the kind thing, the right thing, the thing that helps make this community healthier.”
Descano criticized Morrogh for suing former Gov. Terry McAuliffe over giving voting rights to felons who had been released from prison, opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to end what the challenger described as “decades of failed tough-on-crime policies” and serving in a leadership position with the National District Attorneys Association, which supported the nomination of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“We have a generational opportunity on June 11, the first time in 56 years to really bring progressive criminal-justice reform to our system,” Descano said.
Voters will choose between the candidates in a June 11 primary. The Fairfax County Republican Committee will hold a mass meeting June 10 to select its nominee for the Nov. 5 general election.