This past Monday, I had a chance to sit down in Leesburg with the Democratic nominee for Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Buta Biberaj, for an on-the-record interview. As I wrote recently, Biberaj is super smart, and she understands the balance between making progressive criminal justice reforms while of course protecting the public and advocating for victims. I strongly encourage everyone to support her in the general election, presumably against Republican Nicole Wittmann (current Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney to Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman).
As for our interview, it was a couple hours long – and thanks again to Buta Biberaj for her time! – covering a WIDE array of topics, some more specific to Loudoun County, but most of which have come up frequently in other Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney races this cycle, including in Arlington/Falls Church and Fairfax County. Personally, I think it’s very interesting to compare and contrast Biberaj’s thoughts on an array of subjects, including:
- seeking the death penalty – or not
- “prosecutorial discretion” (how much should there be? should a Commonwealth’s Attorney just unilaterally say they’re not going to prosecute certain laws)
- racial disparities in the criminal justice system
- prosecuting (or not) for marijuana possession
- “discovery” – how open should it be?
- cash bail – when (if ever) it should be used
- the importance of courtroom and managerial experience to being qualified for this position
- the Commonwealth’s Attorney as most definitely NOT one who sits at the desk, but actually getting in the “trenches” by being in the courtroom frequently
- cooperation – or not – with ICE
- the civil asset forfeiture system
- the amicus brief regarding Gov. McAuliffe’s restoration of rights to ex-felons
- views on running for office
- how the current Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is doing and what needs to change
- views on her Republican opponent
- what the main job of the Commonwealth’s Attorney should be – protecting the community and preventing crime? advocating for victims of crime? reforming the system? other? all of the above?
Given that the interview covered so much ground, I’m going to do this in several blog posts. Today, I’ll focus on who Biberaj is, her reasons for running, her views on what the main job of and qualifications for the Commonwealth’s Attorney should be, and also her views of her Republican opponent. By the way, I gave Biberaj a chance to review the transcript of our interview for accuracy, and have incorporated her (very minor) edits. Finally, I’ve added bolding for things that particularly jumped out at me. Enjoy!
P.S. I was struck by how much I agreed with Biberaj on pretty much everything she said. The bottom line is that I am very much in sync with her regarding the Commonwealth’s Attorney job, its qualifications, etc, etc.
Blue Virginia: First, can you tell Blue Virginia readers a bit about yourself and why you’re running for Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney?
Buta Biberaj: “I’ve been a practicing attorney in Virginia and predominately in Loudoun County for 25 years. I’ve been a resident of Loudoun County for 23 years. I was a substitute judge for 11. I had a chance to see how the criminal justice system is very imperfect from different perspectives. We had the situation where it used to be a very lonely conversation when you started talking about justice reform because people would automatically equate that with it being light or easy on crime or soft on crime. And then when people actually started having a conversation one-on-one they realized that there’s a lot of wisdom in doing justice reform. The opportunity presented itself after 2016 because of what happened on the national level, it made me realize that I am very comfortable where I am professionally, personally, financially, socially, everything else like that, I didn’t have the luxury to remain comfortable, but now is my time for me to be able to do something. So that if I didn’t take this opportunity, I couldn’t ask that of someone else…Here you have a situation where with my credibility as being a lawyer in my community, having been a business owner in my community, having as I indicated the judgeship…I just want to make sure that my community is safe and that we’re doing the best we can for them; and, that’s not the vision that I thought the current office had.”
Blue Virginia: So that gets to the next question, are there particular areas where you feel like the Loudoun County CA’s office needs to change? Anything it’s doing well?
Buta Biberaj: “What they have done is on paper made some progress recently. We have a mental health court that got started last year. Now what you’ll read is that my opponent may have been prominent in bringing that forth – that’s not accurate, that was actually done by our general district Judge Welsh who spearheaded that. And then Amy McMullen, one of the senior Assistant Commonwealth Attorneys, was the one that was on board with it. [Republican nominee Nicole] Wittmann had nothing to do with it; that just was not anything she was involved in actively or directly; but now, it’s okay to say I’m behind that? Mental Health court is very selective and very limiting as to who could participate. So yes, we have a mental health court. Awesome! But have we actually expanded the resources, services to the people? It would be almost like having an amazing hospital – you know surgeries on every level. However, only two people can use it. It’s very limited. We have the staffing and everything but just what qualifies you to be able to participate in programs and what qualifies as a success.
We have the drug court that just started in April. Now we had it back in the early 2000s until I want to say maybe until 2012, Plowman was the one who kept talking about the lack of success for it and you know we didn’t have enough people graduating, but again it’s very restrictive so you probably had a little under 70 people participating in the number of years it was open and half of them graduated. So statistically it sounds horrible right but who are you serving? If you’re truly saying we’re gonna have a drug court, gonna have these the services in place and these conditions in place, and these rewards in place, then what you want to be able to do is make it inclusive…you’re investing you know with our resources versus divesting our community resources by just locking somebody up and doing what? When they come out, nothing’s changed.
And that doesn’t work because what we end up doing is we’ll imprison somebody and they are no better off when they leave but look at all the thousands and thousands of dollars we invested.
Loudoun County is deemed to be the most affluent county in the country…nobody can remain successful or affluent by wasting their resources. You invest most successfully by initially getting that more positive return so that every person who’s been impacted by the criminal justice system – being a victim, being an accused, being someone’s who has actually been convicted, after all their consequences have been taken, help make them contributors.”
Blue Virginia: On a scale of 1-10, what score would you give the current Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office?
Buta Biberaj: “They’re mediocre. I would give them a five for this reason. Do they do the task? Sure. But it’s a check-the-box task. Because you could say you know what I did is we caught somebody for shoplifting, we prosecuted them – check the box. We caught somebody you know for having committed assault and battery – check the box. We punished somebody because they violated a court order – check the box. That’s fine but the problem is that you’re not solving anything….it’s reactive not responsive…”
Blue Virginia: What do you see as the most important qualifications for this for the job of Commonwealth Attorney? Does it require significant prosecutorial experience, for example? Courtroom experience? Managerial experience? This has come up in other campaigns that I’ve been following closely, with one candidates arguing it’s mostly a managerial job, while others argue that one needs extensive courtroom experience, etc.
Buta Biberaj: “I’ll tell you why I think I’m the better person for the job. I do have 25 years as an attorney. But it’s not 25 years only as a criminal lawyer. I’ve done civil work. I’ve done personal injury. I’ve done guardian ad litem work. I’ve worked with adults who have been compromised. I’ve sued people on behalf of my clients who have been injured. So I have a much broader perspective as to the criminal justice system as well as the court system. I’ve been a trial attorney for those 25 years. I’ve handled jury trials on something as minor as a reckless driving to a double murder. So I’m very well-versed with the criminal justice system and the rules of evidence. In regards to my experience as being a judge, I also saw how when people come in before you, how the prosecutor’s office uses their discretion in ways that did not appear to be appropriate based on somebody’s socio-economic position, their educational level, their immigrant status or their race – that is where my lens changed. Because when my role was that of an attorney, I had a slim lens there because it’s only based on what my clients maybe would have seen. As a judge, my lens expanded and I was able to see much more…Additionally, I ran my business and I still have a business for the last 25 years…So you have to be able to have management skills. Who are you hiring? We have a very diverse office [of three attorneys and six support persons]. The [Loudoun County] Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is not very diverse. And it doesn’t mean just diversity in race or things of that nature, it has to be diverse in religion, diversity in our experiences, diversity in our thoughts. Because if we are all so similar, we don’t have growth.”
Blue Virginia: So you think it’s important for a Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate to have managed a significant number of people previously?
Buta Biberaj: “It is. It’s a strength.”
Blue Virginia: How about courtroom experience? Is that important/relevant for the Commonwealth’s Attorney job?
Buta Biberaj: “…It is relevant for a number of reasons. One is, and this has always been my feeling…if you are supervising somebody, you have to know or be able to do their job as well, because then how can I know whether or not you are doing a good job? So you need to have that courtroom experience. Secondarily, my goal is to not be a desk Commonwealth’s Attorney. Because, as I keep saying, I’m here to represent the community. Well how the heck do I know what the community is doing or interacting unless I am in the courtroom? And that could be done with traffic cases. Because that’s where most contact is…with the community is – traffic court and misdemeanors. The circuit court stuff is a much smaller percentage of individuals who get involved in that. So if you want to see how your community is dealing, you have that opportunity to see what are people coming in before the court for, how are they reacting, what is their history as they talk to a judge as they speak to them as to what their issues are. That’s how you become engaged in your community and try to figure out what is the best result or outcome in the particular case.”
Blue Virginia: So you’d actually be in the courtroom as an active participant, or would you mostly be supervising other attorneys?
Buta Biberaj: “All of the above and to specifically include sitting at the courtroom desk, handling a docket…I know how to do all those cases. I’ve been doing all these cases for 25 years. It’s not new to me. So I could put me in juvenile. I could put me in traffic court. I could put me in you know misdemeanor criminal court. I could put me in Circuit Court. Those are areas that I’m very familiar with and I’m very comfortable with. So that’s a case that I take that docket that gives me front line exposure to be able to come back to the office and when I say to you, hey Lowell I want you to handle these types of cases and this is the way I want you to think about it how to do this position, I’m not putting you out there on your own. I’m telling you these are things that I believe in, that I think are better for our community, so you can buy into it, so it’s not that I’m setting you up where somebody says, you’re putting me in a tough position because this is not what you would do. Yes I would.”
Blue Virginia: Is this depth and breadth of experience common or rare among Commonwealth’s Attorneys?
Buta Biberaj: “I think it is rare, but I think that’s why they become myopic and distant from their community. They focus on the prosecution to the exclusion and detriment of the people…[If you’re not in the arena], how else do you gain the respect of those that you work with? By doing the work. Who did you respect when you were growing up, was it the guy who yelled at you – said do this do this, or was it the guy who rolled up his sleeves and did it with you?
…I don’t think it gains any respect [for the boss to sit back and tell everyone what to do]…Yeah, we all work for the boss, we all want to keep our jobs so we’ll do what you tell us. But the quality of what I do and then the way I do it is impacted by how you do it. Presumably you’re the elected Commonwealth Attorney because you made the case to voters that you wanted things to operate in a certain fashion. If you’re not involved and engaged, the people under you may or may not follow your vision.
…[A Commonwealth’s Attorney has] got a criminal docket every day, they have a traffic docket every day, in the course of a week there could be thousands of cases; you don’t have time to micromanage that. So I can tell you what I think my vision is. I can tell you how I think we should operate but if I also don’t show you all then you get lost in the shuffle. You don’t want to [micromanage]…that’s why you hire good people. You have to trust that they will serve our community and do better.”
Blue Virginia: What do you see as the main job of the Commonwealth’s Attorney? Protecting the community and preventing crime? Advocating for victims of crime? Reforming the system? Other? All of the above?”
Buta Biberaj: “My vision for what is the main responsibility of the Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney is as follows: Safety is #1 – Having lived and worked in Loudoun since 1993, it is important to me, for me and everyone in Loudoun County to feel safe that when we get up to go to the office at the crack of dark, or to return home in the middle of the night, that we are not harmed. That we can park our cars and they not be damaged, broken into, or stolen. That our victims are not forgotten by the system once the court case is done but we connect them with long term services, that we show them that we care and will help them heal. That our kids go to school and not be abused by the teachers, staff or fellow students. That our kids live in homes where their parents, relatives or acquaintances do not harm them. That if our kids make kids mistakes, that their opportunities for education and success are not taken away from them because they are expelled and put into the criminal justice system. That our neighbors’ rights are protected by law enforcement, the prosecutors, the courts, the community. That we are safe and can believe that the justice system is based on doing justice for the people and not just focused on the prosecution. That the Commonwealth’s Attorney office represents YOU. That we are accountable to YOU. That we will be transparent. That we will always act with integrity and honor. That we are Loudoun. Doing better will not be easy, but it can be done. Working hard and making the tough decisions is a way of life for me. I embrace the opportunity to do so for Loudoun County as its next Commonwealth’s Attorney.”
Blue Virginia: Are there any Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Virginia, or nationally, you particularly view as role models?
Buta Biberaj: “I don’t think there’s one, and I think most of that comes from the fact that we’re different communities, so one approach would not be applicable perfectly for Loudoun. So I would say this I would like to steal ideas from people. Changes in bail bond, that’s huge. How we can redirect first offenders of low offense or nonviolent crimes away from the criminal justice system so they can earn a dismissal versus a conviction. Definitely working with the youth so that they don’t end up being in the criminal justice system at all for as long as we can prevent them from being so. Fewer juvenile detentions so that we’re not having kids who are being incarcerated at a young age for crimes that are, again, not violence. These are different communities who have done that and done it successfully. I am an idea stealer. I’ve learned midway through my career that oh my god, my ideas are not original, somebody’s done them, I just need to see what they’ve done, how do I make it better for my community? And that’s really what this is all about, be open-minded, don’t do what we always did, the cookie cutter way is not the best way…and that’s the problem that we have with our current office, there is nothing that anybody’s trying to pay attention to – this perspective of you know that it’s not broken – it IS broken, fix it! It’s not broken the point that it’s not moving but you can do better. At the end of the day every one of our jobs…is to do better…
…I have a great job, I have autonomy in my office, I’ve got a law practice that’s successful, I was doing the judgeship, I’m comfortable in my life. The time came that the comfort is not appropriate for me to use that as a basis for me not to do something. I should be uncomfortable, and I’m making myself uncomfortable.”
Blue Virginia: Is running for public office something that’s out of your comfort zone?
Buta Biberaj: “Definitely. I’ve never run for office, I don’t even do politics. However, I’m enjoying things, where I’m getting to actually have a conversation with individuals not because they have a legal issue at hand, but it’s just that we are speaking, just like you and me, as a member of Loudoun County, sharing what are thoughts are, realizing that I didn’t know something, so in this process, I am being both a teacher and a student in a conversation and that’s what I’m enjoying.
The comfort part, I am at a very good place in my life where I feel, short of literally you physically taking a baseball bat and beating me with it, I’m not afraid and I have a vision on how to make Loudoun better by using my education, training, insight, and experience and adding to my investment of 25 years to do it better. And that I think empowers people to support me and empowers me to run.
Blue Virginia: What’s the colloquial expression, “I have no f***s left to give?”
[Note: Buta smiled and high-fived me at that point.]
Buta Biberaj: “I’ve been in Loudoun for 25 years, it’s a great community. Honestly I’m not just bragging on it… We’re so fortunate even with our crime levels. People talk about gangs. Do we have a gang issue? Yes, because one gang incident is a gang problem. Is it inner city level? No. Is it Fairfax level? No. Is it Alexandra/Arlington level? No. But we have a gang issue, so we just have to figure out how do we address that and it has to be as a community. You know we start talking about drugs, do we have a drug problem? We have an opioid crisis, we have kids that are dying – not just kids, also adults – who are dying on a regular basis and we have to address that. But the default should never be just to incarcerate because we’re not solving problems, we need to be should be solution based. It’s too hard on our communities to wait to be prosecution based. It’s too late. So be smart. Let’s take our community investment and start having the conversation so everybody understands this is your problem, it’s not just my problem, it’s your problem and everybody else around us that says this, how do we solve it?
It’s a commonsense conversation….Some initially have tried to form the narrative to be, If you’re talking about not having bail and bond, then you’re just trying to open the jails and let everybody free. No. If you’re talking about not prosecuting or incarcerating people for possession of marijuana…no, we need to do things differently, we still want to be a lawful and safe community, but we have to do things wisely, because we can’t keep labeling young people so they can’t get jobs, they can’t go to school…
You have to ask, What is your CA’s office doing for your community. If you like it, perfect. If you don’t, you’ve got to vote. They are supposed to be representing your community standards and your community and if they don’t then they should not be in office.”
Blue Virginia: So that’s your argument to Loudoun County voters, basically?
Buta Biberaj: “It is…It is an open seat and my opponent has never lived in Loudoun County. Now she is using an address in the county, but has never lived here. I have lived here since 1995. Have my law practice in Leesburg since 1993. She has never paid taxes to Loudoun County, has not paid for our schools, has not paid for our law enforcement, hasn’t done any of that. So that to me is huge. It’s not just a job, this is a great opportunity to do awesome things for our community but you have to be invested in it…it’s not a punch-in, punch-out position, you’ve got to be in the community, you have to know who lives here, whose kids you’re dealing with, and have to care about what happens after you leave your office for the day…”