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Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano “Takes Aim at Mass Incarceration with the Announcement of Groundbreaking Sentencing Reforms”

"Enough is enough. Virginia should lead the way in fighting the scourge of mass incarceration"

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From Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano’s office:

FAIRFAX COUNTY COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY STEVE DESCANO TAKES AIM AT MASS INCARCERATION WITH THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF GROUNDBREAKING SENTENCING REFORMS, CALLS ON GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO BAN MANDATORY MINIMUMS

CA Descano’s new policy rejects reliance on mandatory minimums in plea deals.

FAIRFAX COUNTY, VA – Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano has announced his office’s latest reforms to the County’s criminal justice system, with the goal of curbing mass incarceration and prioritizing alternative interventions that have proven more equitable and effective than the exclusive use of imprisonment to fight crime. 

CA Descano’s landmark sentencing policy bans the use of mandatory minimums in plea deals aside from a select few offenses where state law severely limits the flexibility of local prosecutors. 

It also requires prosecutors to seek alternative sentences to incarceration whenever state guidance provides for such an option and to forgo unilaterally charging youth as adults. Further, the policy commits the office to seek pretrial agreements with defendants in appropriate cases that allow for their records to be cleared and hard time avoided upon achieving rehabilitative benchmarks. Additionally, CA Descano’s policy instructs prosecutors to no longer charge felonies for minor offenses where justice can be equally served through misdemeanor charges that limit collateral consequences. Finally, the reform package requires prosecutors to tailor probation lengths to the actual needs of every case and abstain from reflexively seeking excessive probation periods that lack a specific rehabilitative goal. A complete overview of CA Descano’s new sentencing guidance can be reviewed here: https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/commonwealthattorney/reforms

While emphasizing that this policy will go a long way toward reducing mass incarceration in the community, CA Descano called on the General Assembly to ban mandatory minimums in the coming legislative session and noted that comprehensive sentencing reform will prove elusive until the state acts.  

“It is the goal of my office to keep Fairfax County safe in a manner that is consistent with our values,” said Descano. “Exclusively relying on incarceration to fight crime and taking a purely punitive approach to justice fails our community in both respects. We know that, particularly for less serious offenses, a holistic approach to justice that elevates interventions aimed at rehabilitation and reintegration is more likely to reduce crime and less likely to perpetuate the inequities rife within our criminal justice system.

That is why we announced these sentencing reforms, which seek to address the pernicious influence of mass incarceration on our community. Ending the reliance on mandatory minimums in plea deals – along with the other elements of our new sentencing policy that move us away from an exclusive focus on hard time – will make our community safer while promoting more just outcomes in our courthouse. 

Still, comprehensive sentencing reform requires that Richmond act. So long as mandatory minimums remain on the books, judges will be forced to impose irrationally lengthy prison sentences that only increase the risk of recidivism. Meanwhile, prosecutors unwilling to embrace reform will continue to seek such sentences – and those who do embrace reform will remain constrained because mandatory minimums are so pervasive in state law that local prosecutors cannot abandon them without also being forced to ignore critical facts surrounding certain types of cases.

Enough is enough. Virginia should lead the way in fighting the scourge of mass incarceration. Otherwise too many families will remain broken and struggling to pay the bills while a loved one spends holiday season after holiday season behind bars.

I therefore urge the General Assembly to ban mandatory minimums in its coming legislative session.”

CA Descano’s announcement comes on the heels of earlier reforms announced by the office that include the formation of a Justice Advisory Council, the restructuring of the office to produce accountability around reforms, the cessation of the prosecution of marijuana possession, and no longer requesting cash bail, among others. CA Descano authored an oped last week in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about his sentencing reforms and urging the General Assembly to end mandatory minimums.

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