Home 2019 Elections Catching Up With Presumptive Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti

Catching Up With Presumptive Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti

An interview with the Democratic nominee, who is unopposed in the General (be sure to vote though).

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by Cindy

So, you’ve pretty much just been chilling and relaxing since June 11th, right?

I like to joke that I’m the busiest unemployed person that I know. I resigned as regional director of the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project immediately after the primary. Since then, I’ve gotten right to work on the transition; while I’m not taking anything for granted as far as November 5th goes, I don’t have an opponent, so it made sense to proceed as if I will be taking the reins. I’ve met with countless stakeholders, including the Department of Human Services, the Arlington and Falls Church City Police, the City Manager, the County Manager, and various groups that work in the criminal justice realm. I’ve put together a transition team, and began to make plans for how the office will be organized, what policies we’ll put in place, etc. Additionally, I wanted to make sure to stay in touch with the community and the voters—we’ve had roundtable discussions, and other events. Whether or not you chose to vote for me, I will be representing you, and your concerns are my concerns, and your safety is my priority.

You’ve been a bit of a superstar. What’s the most surreal thing that has happened to you since the primary?

First, I don’t think I’m a superstar, I’m just so fortunate to be able to be part of this movement. The most surreal thing is when people stop me and tell me they voted for me, that they’re excited that I won the election. Sometimes it’s high school teachers, who want to see more restorative justice used in school discipline issues, rather than criminalizing kids. Or special education teachers, whose students we know disproportionately end up in the criminal justice system. All sorts of people who are touched by the court system—victims, parents of victims, people from all walks of life—have stopped me to tell me how glad they are that I’ve raised this conversation, which is really still quite a taboo conversation even in Arlington.

How is the transition going? What have you been doing to learn as much as you can about the nuts and bolts of running a prosecutor’s office?

I’m very focused on building bridges with stakeholders, building a level of trust, trying to listen and see their perspectives. I’ve done ride-alongs with both the Falls Church City Police as well as the Arlington Police. I’ve met with DHS, Project Peace. My goal is to strengthen the bonds between the prosecutor’s office and the non-profits serving victims of abuse and domestic violence, and those working with the homeless and those with mental illness. I’ve been so humbled by the warm response I’ve gotten from these groups.

I’ve also gathered a lot of information from other professionals—other Commonwealth’s Attorneys, other prosecutors, I’ve communicated in one way or another with everyone in this office—to find out what works well and where we need improvement. One particular major change I anticipate making is to move the office to a vertical model for all cases, wherein a prosecutor gets the case from day one and handles it through the final outcome, rather than the case being passed around. This is important for the comfort of victims, as well as for the police and other witnesses—leading to more clarity about who the point of contact is, having fewer hearings, less time waiting around, more accountability for the prosecutors, and maintaining important institutional knowledge about each case.

You’ve been pretty involved with other races, why do you think that’s important?

We talked a lot during the primary about the incredible discretionary power that prosecutors have over what policies to enact, what charges to pursue, how transparent to be with discovery and data, how to treat children, etc. But recognize that this is driven entirely by who is in office. In order to make lasting change, it will be critical not only to work with other Commonwealth’s Attorneys in other jurisdictions on best practices, but we also need legislation. We are at a moment in history when we have the chance to have the most progressive legislature in Virginia history. We have the chance to enact lasting criminal justice reform. So, I’m doing all I can to help—I’ve hosted or been on the host committee for several legislative races outside our area, I’ve gone canvassing, and just this week I hosted a joint fundraiser for all five Northern Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney races.

I still hear people complaining about the influence outside money had on your race. What are your thoughts on that today?

I still contend that my campaign was a grassroots one. My campaign began with over a dozen friends and community members, gathered around my kitchen table, offering to work on my campaign for free until I could raise money for paid staff. Long before my campaign was deemed worthy of support from outside donors, I had already built an incredible network of these grassroots community supporters. These were people who donated in small dollar amounts, opened up their homes to host meet and greets, talked about my campaign to everyone they knew, and volunteered to canvass, many of whom saying they had never been this involved in a campaign before. Support comes in many different forms, and I had the support of Indivisible groups, Blue NoVA, WofA, Our Revolution, and countless other local activists and groups. The big donations from progressive justice organizations certainly helped us to get our message across, allowing me to spend more time knocking doors, attending meet and greets, sitting in living rooms, and especially, talking to the underserved community members rather than the donor class. When we first began talking to voters, most didn’t even know what a Commonwealth’s Attorney was, what the job entailed, or that it was a position they elected someone to fill. So we had our work cut out for us, and we spent months educating those voters. Ultimately though, no amount of money can convince people to vote for you if your message doesn’t resonate.

I saw some pictures of you in Alabama, on the Pettus bridge, what was that all about?

The Center for Fair and Just Prosecution is an organization that provides a space for reform prosecutors to learn from each other, work together, share research and data, and build a community. They organized a trip to Alabama for us that included a trip to the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum. It was incredibly emotional to stand in a building where enslaved people were held between the dock and the auction block—it was simultaneously emotional, powerful, devastating and illuminating. There is a historical line that runs straight from slavery through lynchings, segregation and the modern incarceral system; it’s obvious why the roots of incarceration disproportionately affect Black communities.

From there we went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to the more than 4400 victims of lynching. And then we went to walk across the Pettus Bridge in Selma. I really didn’t expect to be so moved, but in that moment, I was so in awe of the courageous people who were willing to give their bodies on that bridge to make their world better. It really strengthened my sense of obligation to these people to continue serving the community—while nothing I do will ever be as scary as that, I feel that it’s my responsibility to make their sacrifice worthwhile. You know, a lot of the people who voted for me wouldn’t have been able to but for the people who marched on that bridge, that isn’t lost on me.