My Thoughts on Civil Discourse and the Commonwealth’s Attorney Race

I don’t usually send long emails. However, I am very concerned about deceptive and misleading mailers you may be receiving from the challenger in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s primary race on June 11, so I am writing a very long email now.

Let me say at the outset that Arlington is progressive and well-run, but not perfect. This includes the office of our current Commonwealth’s Attorney, Theo Stamos, who is up for re-election and whom I strongly support in this race. I believe we could use a healthy debate about equity in Arlington and how our legal justice system works. However, a healthy debate means using facts about what is working and what is not. Deceit and misrepresentation poison public discourse.

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign mailers are deceptive. They cite cases from years ago as if they are current, describe national trends that do not reflect what is happening here in Arlington, and misrepresent the positions of our Commonwealth’s Attorney, Theo Stamos. They smear our police who risk their lives for us every day.

Our health as a community depends on excellent public safety. We have it and we need to keep it.

Details are below. I’ll start with what is being done right in Arlington and then address some specific accusations and innuendos in the mailers from Ms. Dehghani-Tafti. I apologize for the length of this email. I am happy to discuss this with anyone and hope it is helpful as you determine your vote on June 11.

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Our criminal justice system requires qualified prosecutors and equally qualified defense attorneys. It is vital to our system that that those accused of crime have a good quality defense counsel advocating on their behalf. It is the job of the Commonwealth’s Attorney to be ministers of justice, which includes prosecuting crimes and giving victims a voice.

A good Commonwealth’s Attorney also helps keep us safe.

The safety we feel in Arlington is, in a way, Theo’s resume. It is the result of enlightened policing and smart prosecuting. Arlington is tough on those who are a danger to the community, and decent to those who need help – whether they suffer from addiction, a mental health disorder, homelessness, or youthful folly.

In our 2018 Community Satisfaction Survey, 91% of residents say they feel safe here. Our police consistently rank at the top of our resident satisfaction surveys over the years. Statistics show that crime is down in Arlington, the jail population is at its lowest in five years, and we have the lowest recidivism rate in Virginia for adults on probation. We can all be proud of our community.

Could our system be better? Of course, and Theo and others always work to make a good system better.

1. Under Theo’s leadership, Arlington started its first Drug Court in 2012. This provides not just an alternative to incarceration for Arlington residents charged with drug-related felonies and who meet specific criteria for being drug and/or alcohol dependent, but it also provides intensive support to address their addiction. Individuals in the program have a case manager, substance abuse counselor, probation officer and participate in group and individual therapy. Our Drug Court is part of the reason that Arlington has the lowest recidivism rate in Virginia for adults on probation.

2. Theo helped create the Second Chance Program, an early intervention/education program for young people caught for the first time with drugs or alcohol. Theo agreed that those who successfully completed the program would not be prosecuted. More than 500 youth have benefited from not having a criminal record, not being suspended from school, and being educated about the dangers of substance abuse. Her office teaches part of the Second Chance curriculum every month (getting top reviews from the students) and participates in the monthly meetings to coordinate the program.

3. One of the reasons we almost never hear about police shootings or use of excessive force in Arlington is because of Crisis Intervention Training. Theo’s office has been involved with the Arlington County Police Department and the Department of Human Services for years in that training – and we’ve trained 76% of our officers so far. This provides tools for police to respond to individuals with mental illness and other potentially volatile situations without the use of force. Theo’s office has been on the Department of Human Services’ Mental Health and Criminal Justice Review Committee for over a decade, supporting efforts to expand services for those with mental illness.

4. Theo helped convene a Town Hall on the opioid crisis when she heard the frustration from parents who know that their children are exposed to or using drugs and don’t know what to do. That was part of the impetus for her working with the Department of Human Services and police to start Operation Safe Station, where individuals can turn in drugs, start drug treatment, and not be prosecuted.

5. Theo leads the Sexual Assault Response Team, which includes first responders and those providing support for survivors. They recently completed a protocol for how this community works together to address sexual assault. This protocol is a model for communities across Virginia and is an invaluable resource for victims.

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Now I’d like to turn to the accusations and deceptions in the mailers from Theo’s opponent that I’ve seen so far and which you may be receiving. The key takeaway here is that Theo’s opponent appears to be trying to distort her way into office.

1. Police brutality: Ms. Dehghani-Tafti makes a blatant mischaracterization regarding Theo not holding our police accountable for “police brutality”.

The mailer refers to a case from 2015, a very sad incident of a shooting by a police officer while he was responding to a domestic abuse call. In her mailer, Ms. Dehghani-Tafti purposefully distorts the case when she accuses an officer of “brutality” when in fact he was rescuing a mother in her 80’s from abuse by her son who had been convicted previously of a felony and was known to be violent. The officer had to force his way into the apartment and tried to use a taser to subdue the assailant. That failed. The mother appeared frightened and cowering in the corner. The assailant attacked the officer with a sharp pipe, slashed his face, and that officer later required over 60 stitches to treat the wound.

2. Bail: Repeatedly, Ms. Dehghani-Tafti tries to tar Arlington County with statistics from other places. For example: cash bail. Her mailer misleads when it says “…approximately 70% of people who are in jail are there because they cannot pay their bail.” And that “we need to stop treating poverty like a crime.” Theo agrees. Less than 10% of our jail population have bail and have not paid it. And some people don’t do so because they want to “serve their time” prior to a plea. Others have warrants for their arrest out of other jurisdictions and they’d prefer to stay in Arlington. Theo’s opponent insinuates, wrongly, that Theo and our Arlington community use bail to punish poverty.

The use of cash bail is set out in our State code and the legislature needs to be encouraged to address this issue. Attacking the Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney for following the law is very concerning for someone running to be the top law enforcement officer in the County. Theo supports correcting cash bail injustices that only punish poverty and so do I. Theo does everything she can legally to mitigate bail statutes when warranted. Judges set bail, not the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

3. Voting Rights: The opponent twists Theo’s and other Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ concern with former Governor McAuliffe’s unlawful executive order to restore voting rights to felons who have served their time. McAuliffe’s blanket restoration was well-intentioned, but dangerous in its implementation because it also facilitated the ability of violent felons to have their gun rights restored. Theo’s effort to keep guns out of the hands of violent offenders has been twisted by the opponent into a lie about Theo’s true position. Theo is all for restoring voting rights when it’s done appropriately and guns are kept out of the hands of violent offenders. Ms. Dehghani-Tafti misrepresents Theo’s true position and twists a position intended to keep us safe into something bad. You may be interested in this piece written on the issue.

4. Marijuana: The opponent yet again misrepresents the facts and Theo’s position. The Commonwealth’s Attorney doesn’t make the laws, but she did swear an oath to uphold them. In Virginia, marijuana is still illegal. Theo has a policy of using prosecutorial discretion to waive jail time for a first marijuana offense, and nobody is going to jail on their second marijuana offense either. You’d never know that from the mailers we are receiving. The Virginia Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court ruling that prosecutors cannot unilaterally dismiss marijuana possession cases just because they think it should not be illegal. This is precisely what the opponent pledges to do. Ms. Dehghani-Tafti is literally pledging to not follow the law OR the ruling of the Supreme Court.

Think about it. We may not like Virginia’s current laws on marijuana, but if we say it’s ok to not enforce a law we don’t like…what about laws that we DO like that OTHER, more conservative Commonwealth’s Attorneys, do not? What if they decided not to enforce THOSE laws? The rule of law is a linchpin of our democracy. An oath of office has real meaning. We need to change the Virginia Code, not ignore oaths of office and the rule of law.

5. Prosecuting Juveniles: One of the mailers accuses Theo of prosecuting 10 year-olds. Ms. Dehghani-Tafti’s accusations do not even make sense. She dug up a case from 20 years ago when Theo was not the Commonwealth Attorney, was not the Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney, and was not the trial prosecutor.

I was on the School Board and remember the incident. Two ten-year old boys put hand sanitizer in their teacher’s water bottle, which he drank from. The teacher thought he had been fatally poisoned The boys admitted it. They said they wanted to kill their teacher. The boys did not go to jail or prison. There was a deferred disposition on a misdemeanor, and the case was ultimately dismissed because the boys got the supervision and treatment that they needed. The case is not relevant to Theo, but even if it were, it is totally misrepresented.

6. Our Schools: Ms. Dehghani-Tafti says there is a “school to prison pipeline.” There isn’t one in Arlington. She criticizes School Resource Officers (SROs) who (i) help keep our students safe, (ii) have often helped students who come to them about abuse at home because the SROs have their trust, and (iii) are there in case of a safety emergency. Just last year in Maryland, an SRO stopped an active school shooter. SROs help keep our children safe.

7. Victim Protection: You should note in the mailers you have received that there is little to no mention of victims of crime. This gives a false impression of what the Commonwealth’s Attorney actually does, which includes prosecuting crimes and giving victims a voice. While defendants have rights and deserve advocates, so do victims of crime.

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If you’ve read to the end of this long email, thank you. I apologize again for the length, but I just had to set the record straight about our Commonwealth’s Attorney, our criminal justice system in Arlington, and our public safety personnel. Our public discourse is poisoned at so many levels, I don’t want it to be here. We are better than that.

I hope you will join me in voting for Theo Stamos for Commonwealth’s Attorney on June 11 at your regular polling place to re-elect an outstanding Commonwealth’s Attorney who helps keep us safe. We need to send a clear signal to anyone thinking of running for office in Arlington that deceit and misrepresentation don’t work here.

May, 17, 2019