Commonwealth's Attorneys are the county prosecutors in Virginia. In Arlington and Falls Church, there's a race between the seven-year incumbent, Theo Stamos, and challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, for the Democratic nomination. Dehghani-Tafti wants to bring criminal justice reform to the office and argues current policies promote mass incarceration; Stamos says she's promoted diversion programs, addressed wrongful convictions, and supported victims of sexual assault.
The Greater Greater Washington Elections Committee wanted to know their thoughts on transportation-related matters the Commonwealth Attorney sometimes prosecutes, and posed some questions to them along with other races in Northern Virginia primary elections for General Assembly and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Across 10 races, 32 of 36 candidates returned our questionnaire.
The Elections Committee will be deciding whether to make endorsements, which we'll do if there is a clear best candidate in our opinion. To figure that out, we'll look at the questionnaire responses, but also, we'd like to hear from you. Do you have context we should understand about some of these answers? Other information? You can give us your feedback using this form.
Here are the responses for the Commonwealth's Attorney race, in the order they submitted the survey. We'll be posting other races soon. The primary is June 11.
As more people in Arlington and Falls Church use a variety of transportation options, how would you ensure accountability among the varied users of our transportation network?
Theo Stamos: A prosecutor from my office is assigned to every traffic docket. Their role is to interface with police, witnesses, pro se defendants and defense counsel involved in a wide range of traffic infractions including reckless driving, failure to yield, speeding, etc. The presence of a prosecutor helps to hold offenders accountable before the court and serves as a deterrent to committing future traffic offenses. I will continue this practice if re-elected Commonwealth's Attorney.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti: We are blessed in this area to have a public transportation system that receives high marks, particularly by women’s groups, for personal safety. There are, of course many architectural, structural, and ambient things that can be put in place to ensure the safety of all passengers and to deter wrongdoers -- from parking lots to buses, to Metro cars. I would prosecute the car thefts that occur in parking lots, have open channels of communication and cooperation between officers and law enforcement, and ensure the safety of riders by prosecuting sexual harassment and assault crimes that occur on public transportation.
Data and information on prosecutions for crime connected to all types of transportation should be collected and made publicly available by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. This ensures that any gaps or biases that may exist in the enforcement of our laws can be uncovered, so that they can then be addressed and amended to ensure that everyone is held accountable to the same degree while maintaining public safety.
Under what circumstances should a driving license be revoked or suspended?
Theo Stamos: Under the Virginia Code, licenses can be suspended for a variety of offenses upon conviction such as drunk driving, reckless driving, hit and run, driving without a license or with a suspended or revoked license. I support the repeal of license suspensions for offenses that have nothing to do with drunk, drugged or dangerous driving.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti: We should not suspend driver’s licenses for the non-payment of fees and fines, as this policy criminalizes simple everyday acts, including going to work and dropping the kids off at school, and creates a downward spiral of increased fines. These suspensions can eventually lead to jail time and the loss of employment and housing, and puts families dependent on the driver at risk. Moreover, almost half of the prosecutions in Arlington and the City of Falls Church for driving on a suspended license for failure to pay fines and fees since 2012 have been prosecutions of African-Americans. That disparity must be examined and dealt with.
I will support the implementation of diversion programs and advocate for legislative reform so that people are not incarcerated for a suspended license over unpaid fines or minor offenses, and so that people’s access to essential services and activities like their job are not threatened in the future.
However, driver’s licenses should be suspended for those convicted of offenses while using a vehicle that pose a serious danger to the community, such as when a vehicle is used to injure a person.
What role should the Commonwealth Attorney’s office have in furthering the goals of Vision Zero? How would you ensure calls for increased enforcement of traffic laws do not discriminate against people of color?
Theo Stamos: Reducing pedestrian deaths and injury is of paramount importance to my office. Arlington and Falls Church are vibrant, urban environments in which many residents use an array of transit options. The key to uniform application of our traffic laws lies in robust education and training for our first responders. My office routinely engages in such trainings and will continue to do so.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti: The Commonwealth Attorney’s office plays a central role in the enforcement of laws that are designed to maintain public safety and reduce fatalities from road traffic. One of the key tenets of my platform is increasing transparency within Arlington County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in order to expose and correct racial inequalities.
The only effective policies are evidence-based ones, and it is only through the collection of data and information that equitable and more effective policies relating to the enforcement of all laws, including traffic laws, can be developed. This is the only way to find systemic biases within the criminal justice system, so that they can be corrected to achieve fairer outcomes. For example, while African-Americans are 9% of Arlington County’s population, they make up 66% of the incarcerated population in the Arlington County jail, despite evidence indicating that populations commit crimes at similar rates.
To that end, the office should collect and publicly share data on who it prosecutes, what charges it brings, and what sentences it hands out. I will work with organizations who assist prosecutor’s offices for free to gather data on where the system works and where it does not, and take steps to address the issues that underpin these inequalities within the criminal justice system in Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. I will also establish internal policies to promote ethical and fair practices within the prosecutor’s office.