Home 2019 Elections Video: Arlington/Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos Debates Dem Challenger Parisa Tafti...

Video: Arlington/Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos Debates Dem Challenger Parisa Tafti at AYD Forum

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I’ll probably go back in later and add some more commentary, but for now, here’s video from last night’s Arlington/Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney debate, very well done by the Arlington Young Democrats. The candidates are incumbent CA Theo Stamos and Democratic challenger Parisa Tafti. And note that there were VERY strong disagreements on a bunch of issues…

Theo Stamos opening statement – Emphasized her experience, says she’s tried more than 1,000 bench trials, that she’s “never had a conviction overturned on appeal,” that there’s “never been a wrongful conviction in Arlington County the past three decades,” that “Arlington is a public safety success story…because of programs and initiatives that I have led on. Said “I have more than three decades of experience promoting progressive values to ensure that fairness is accorded to defendants, while never forgetting that the criminal justice system also exists to provide justice to the victims of crime.”

Parisa Tafti opening statement – Saidour criminal legal system needs real reform, but the questions for this debate and for this election are what does reform look like here and which of us is better suited to deliver it my experience in criminal justice is deep broad and diverse.” Said “I decided to run for Commonwealth’s Attorney because I noticed that our criminal legal system here in Arlington in the city of posture doesn’t reflect our values,” that Arlington is “lagging behind on criminal justice reform.”

Should people arrested for drug possession spend any time in jail? – Stamos said, “Clearly, the possession of marijuana should never result in anyone spending any time incarcerated, and in fact in Arlington that’s not what happens; an individual arrested for possession of marijuana is released on the same piece of paper you get for a speeding ticket… a Virginia Uniform Summons – you’re not booked, you’re not handcuffed, you’re not put in a squad car…but make no mistake there’s no one sitting in Arlington County jail for…simple possession of marijuana – it’s not occurring.”

Tafti said – “The answer is that in most cases, I don’t think that there is a public safety reason for somebody who’s simply in possession and nothing else, for them to spend time in jail, because chances are that the person needs treatment and jail does not provide appropriate treatment and has never gotten anybody clean…The point that my opponent made that marijuana is essentially like a traffic ticket – it is not like a traffic ticket…”

Should people in prison be allowed to vote? – Stamos said: “I certainly support the restoration of rights for convicted felons in Virginia…I think the determination of whether or not an individual should be able to vote from prison is a determination that needs to be made by the General Assembly.”

Tafti said: “I don’t think that anybody should lose their voting rights because they have a conviction we know that these laws were created in the Jim Crow era and they were created in order to keep black people and as close to a state of slavery as possible Virginia remains an outlier…I would support…restoring voting rights automatically.”

Parisa Tafti criticizes Theo Stamos on signing amicus brief; Stamos responds, says McAuliffe “abrogated the Virginia constitution”

Is extensive trial experience an important qualification for this job? – Tafti said: “I don’t think the extensive local trial experience is important to this role…My opponent has insinuated repeatedly that I lack experience, even though she knows I have 20 years of criminal justice practice…This is not a trial attorney position, this is a management and policy position.”

Stamos responded: “My opponent doesn’t think it’s important that she’s ever had a jury trial or a bench trial because [she says it’s] a management position is simply untrue. I go to court every single day, and every single day the prosecutors in my office look to me to be able to plan trial strategy, to understand how to prepare an
opening statement, to introduce critical and complicated evidence. It’s important that you have the ability to try cases; my opponent has not done that.”

Tafti responded to that: “I’ve had a front row seat to the mistakes that prosecutors make that ruin innocent people’s lives, while allowing perpetrators to walk free…”

What role should the Commonwealth’s Attorney play in fighting for criminal justice reform? Stamos said: “I’ve been on the front lines of the criminal justice system instituting progressive programs like the drug court…second chance…safe station…”

Tafti said: The Commonwealth’s attorney’s office sets priorities and policies, so they decide what to prosecute and who to prosecute. And in doing that, they make all the difference in whether people’s lives are ruined by a simple marijuana possession conviction…My opponent took credit for raising the felony larceny in threshold, but she actually lobbied against raising it to $1,000.”

Question on reducing racial disparities in criminal justice system Stamos said: We
never consider the race of individuals who are prosecuted, it is simply not a feature of the job that we have.” Tafti said: “What we need to address is institutional racism…These practices and policies don’t depend on individual conscious prejudice or bias, but rather are driven by unconscious bias and rooted in historical patterns of discrimination.”

Question on what’s working well in CA’s office, what needs to be improved Stamos said: “What we do well is we come to work every day to seek justice for the community, and that means justice for the defendant, justice for our victims. And our victims really look to us to be a voice for them in the courtroom…I would like to see us…our colleagues across the bench to have easier access to discovery; the problem…is one of resources…and it’s one of making sure that our crime victims and witnesses are adequately protected.”

Tafti described “how discovery works in Arlington…What this office does is actually a waste of resources, both on within the office and on the part of the defense attorneys. Because they require the defense attorney to come into the office during business hours and take notes on the files; that is simply a waste of time. The documents should simply be turned over, just like they are in most of the jurisdictions around the country and certainly in our neighboring jurisdictions.”

Question on your biggest professional weakness and room for improvement. Stamos said:  My temper I suppose…sometimes I’m pretty histrionic, and folks who work for me know that I can be very voluble, but I’m very passionate about the work that I do…I come to work every day simply for the goal of seeking justice…It’s a tough, challenging job being a prosecutor. It’s important to have tried cases to understand the mechanics of trial work; it is not a management and policy job at all…The craft of prosecution is a craft that I’ve been honing for 30 years…”

Tafti said: “I think that my my greatest weakness is that sometimes I need to step away from something…I have the hindsight to be able to look back and see what mistakes the system makes. I understand the science behind all of the causes of wrongful conviction. I am up-to-date on forensic science and what is junk science.”

What does the term “prosecutorial discretion” mean to you? Stamos said: “I think prosecutorial discretion is the key feature of being a prosecutor…in my mind the exercise of prosecutorial discretion does not extend to taking an oath to uphold the law and then…turning around and saying I’m going to pick and choose the laws that should be enforced. That’s what my opponent is saying when she says she’s no longer going to prosecute possession of marijuana. To me that’s an entirely anti-democratic position to
take. Because the General Assembly has determined, and unless and until they repeal the marijuana laws or decriminalize them, which I support, you take an oath to uphold the law, and prosecutorial discretion in my book simply does not extend to picking and choosing among the laws you like and you favor and enforcing those laws and then choosing not to enforce others. That’s an example of, in my mind, reckless behavior.”

Tafti said: “Prosecutors are elected by the people that they represent in order so
that they can exercise independent judgment and be responsive to the community. I would stop wasting our tax dollars when we’re in the position of a budget deficit on simple marijuana possession cases because those cases don’t make us safer…My opponent says that she can’t do anything about it because she’s required to enforce the law. But there are a lot of laws on the books than we don’t enforce. For example, I would like to know when the last time was that my opponent prosecuted adultery, or if my opponent would have prosecuted a sodomy charge against members of the LGBT community before those laws were deemed unconstitutional.”

Parisa Tafti closing statement. “I will work to create a 21st century system that is transparent and accountable to eliminate cash bail; to expand and create diversion programs for our youth, the mentally ill, those in the grips of addiction…We can build a system that we are proud of, a system that leads the nation and a system that reflects our values and keeps us safe — without participating in mass incarceration, without criminalizing poverty, without penalizing vulnerable people, without tolerating racial disparities and without re-traumatizing victim…Reforms won’t happen unless it’s done locally, right here…What this campaign as demonstrated is a deep unwillingness to reflect. We’re told everything is fine, the office does the right thing. But we can do better and together we can.”

Theo Stamos closing statement: “Arlington is a public-safety success story and I want to also point out that the jail population in Arlington County is the lowest it’s been in more than five years…that’s not a talking point, that’s a fact…because of smart policing and smart prosecution…My opponent talks about…discovery…She wants to be able to turn
over to defense counsel who represents a domestic abuser the handwritten
statement of a crime victim that purports to tell the story of the anguished and the hell that she takes on at the hands of her abuser and she wants the Commonwealth to turn over that written statement to the defense attorney and making that written
statement the product of the defendant. Who then the next time he gets to wack her around a little bit, he pulls out a copy of that witness statement that she hand wrote six months ago to wave in her face and to continue the beating. These are concerns that I have…protecting victims and witnesses to crime. My opponent mentioned earlier that the jail never did anything for folks who are addicted to drugs; that’s because she’s just unaware of how the system works in Arlington County…a very vibrant and robust in-jail drug treatment program…The comments…my opponent and my colleague [made] show a deep misunderstanding of trial work and the role of a prosecutor and what it means to be a Commonwealth’s Attorney.”