Home 2019 Elections Meet the Commonwealth’s Attorney Challengers, Episode 1: Parisa Dehghani-Tafti

Meet the Commonwealth’s Attorney Challengers, Episode 1: Parisa Dehghani-Tafti

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Tell me a little about your background.

I am a longtime Arlington resident.  I’m married with two kids who attend public school in Arlington.  When I was 4 years old, my parents immigrated to the United States, seeking religious freedom.  My parents worked two and three jobs each to make ends meet, but I was fortunate to attend UC Berkeley on a combination of grants, loans, work study and scholarships. I decided to attend law school because a good friend was convicted of a crime he did not commit.  

My very first criminal justice job was as an unpaid intern in the San Francisco Public Defender Office, where, among other things, I pulled together resources for substance abuse programs and worked on criteria to match clients to appropriate programs in what was one of the first drug courts in the country.  I attended New York University School of Law, where my most formative experience was serving as a student-attorney in the Capital Defender Clinic, representing defendants in death penalty cases around the country.

I spent a brief period as an associate at a private law firm (I carried the cases I worked on in law school with me and eventually became the pro bono associate); then went to the Public Defender Service of DC, where I won the first post-conviction DNA exoneration in DC; I am now the Legal Director of an innocence organization; and I have taught law school as an Associate Professor and Adjunct Professor.  In other words, I have spent the last 20 years as an innocence lawyer, public defender, and law professor. I have argued in front of the Virginia Supreme Court, worked on cases of constitutional magnitude, represented indigent clients at all levels of the criminal justice system, and worked to identify areas where reform is needed.

What made you want to run for Commonwealth’s Attorney?

I decided to run because the closer I looked at the office, the more I realized that on virtually every issue – cash bail, marijuana possession, the death penalty, asset forfeiture, juvenile justice, school discipline, mental health diversion, restoration of voting rights, transparency — the policies of the incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney are out of step with my values and the expressed values of the community.   

On the surface, it may seem that the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office doesn’t have much of an impact on our daily lives as, say, the School Board or the County Board. In truth, the office arguably exerts an even greater influence on community welfare and well-being.  Day in and day out, the decisions of the Commonwealth’s Attorney affect issues of housing, employment, education, family life, and civil rights for countless people, such that any class-based or race-based unfairness in the criminal justice system ends up being replicated in these civil areas.  So, I decided to run because I truly believe that, along with environmental action, criminal justice reform is one of the fundamental civil rights issue of our generation, and that only people with diverse backgrounds reforming from the inside can help to make things right.

What role do you think prosecutors should play in reforming the criminal justice system?

Prosecutors will tell you that their primary role is to prosecute crimes.  I think this notion is too limited. Prosecutors are the chief law enforcement officers in the court system, but their role should be just as much to prevent crime as to prosecute it.  This requires community engagement on an intimate level, it requires partnerships with all stakeholders, including governmental and nonprofit, and it requires an understanding of what actually makes us safer. For example, there is ample data that education and diversion actually decrease recidivism.  A CA’s office should be acting on that. In addition, CAs wield a great deal of influence over legislators – they should be using that influence to pursue and support evidence-based policies to reform the law, rather than lobbying to maintain the status quo or treat people more harshly.

What current policy position in your Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is your highest priority to reform?

When I’m elected, I will stop prosecuting simple marijuana possession; I will work with stakeholders to establish robust diversion for minors, people with mental illness and those with disabilities, and people suffering from addiction;  I will stop seeking cash-bail for individuals who don’t present a danger or a flight risk and work with stakeholders to begin using validated risk assessment tools to determine appropriate levels of community supervision; I will stop initiating civil asset forfeiture based on a criminal charge prior to conviction; I will establish a truly open-file system such that defense attorneys are provided with electronic copies of discovery files; I will not seek the death penalty; I will work with our legislators to promote evidence-based reforms, like decriminalization of marijuana.

How should Virginia reform the bail system?

We should have a presumption of release absent proof that an individual is dangerous or a flight risk.  We should adopt risk-assessment tools to help assess the level of services an individual needs to succeed in the community; we should expand pre-trial services so that people can be supervised, but ensure that they are supervised at the correct level based on these tools.  We should adopt automatic texting policies to remind people of their court dates, which has been shown to be highly effective in getting people to show up for hearings.

Should we decriminalize marijuana?

At the very least, yes. My concern about simply decriminalizing is that the fines will turn into a means of expanding the net and that people will then be imprisoned for their inability to pay fines. In addition, the fine structure places a greater burden on the poor by simply being a larger portion of their income.

The legislature was unable to end the practice of civil asset forfeiture last year. Should they keep trying, and what do you think stands in the way?

They should keep trying. Powerful lobbies keep the practice in place. It should not be the case that the government can take your property simply because you are suspected of criminal activity, or even on the basis of a criminal charge. This is particularly true given that an individual then has to fight to get their property back, and often the fight is more costly than the assets seized.  It is, in short, an un-American practice.

Are diversion programs effective, and when should they be used?

Diversion programs have been repeatedly demonstrated to be effective.  They should be used for any non-violent cases, and for cases that do not involve guns.

We hear a lot about the school to prison pipeline. What can be done at the Commonwealth Attorney’s level to actually break it up?

We can stop prosecuting things like “disorderly conduct” cases to start.  We should not be elevating standard school disciplinary infractions to criminal offenses.  The Commonwealth’s Attorney should also collect and share data on children who do face criminal prosecutions so we can eliminate disparities in the system.  I strongly believe we should treat kids like kids, and not charge children under age 17 as adults. I would work to expand diversion programs for children, including those who are struggling with mental illness and addiction, and those who have disabilities.  

What do you think about the death penalty?

It is wrong.  Of the over 2000 exonerations that have occurred since 1989, about 160 of them were death penalty cases — that means that 160 people who were on death row were proven innocent.  These are people who would have been killed, but for the good fortune that there was proof of innocence, lawyers took on their cases, and courts or electeds intervened. Death is the one punishment that cannot be un-done.