Prison reform is a winning message in Northern Virginia primaries
By Davis Burroughs
June 13, 2019

In Tuesday’s Democratic primaries, two prosecutors in Northern Virginia lost their bids to be releelected to newcomers who focused on inequities in the criminal justice system versus being tough on crime. In a bellwether state like Virginia, the results could reflect a larger shift in thinking among Democratic voters when it comes to criminal justice —more equity, less people behind bars.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, told the Washington Post that the results “are going to send such a message to the rest of the country” that voters want to “right the wrongs of the past.”

In Arlington, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti bested Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, a career prosecutor. Dehghani-Tafti said the results show voters are ready to put “justice back in the criminal justice system.”

In Fairfax County, Steve Descano defeated Ray Morrogh, the incumbent commonwealth’s attorney. Morrogh has prosecuted cases in state courts for 35 years while Descano has never prosecuted a case in state court. Descano said his victory shows voters want “progressive criminal justice reform,”

Both Dehghani-Tafti and Descano campaigned on reforming racial injustices in sentencing and carving out better alternatives to incarceration for convicts with mental illnesses. They also want to do away with prosecutions for marijuana possession, cash bail, and the death penalty for capital cases.

Virginia’s adult incarceration rate is high compared to other states, ranking among the top 15 in the country, according to 2016 figures. Virginia students get sent to law enforcement agencies — police and courts — at a rate nearly triple the national average, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Most of those students in the school-to-prison pipeline are black or disabled.

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