Recently, I had the chance to interview Josh Katcher, a Democratic candidate for Arlington/Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney. Katcher announced a few weeks ago, stating that he is “running because my opponent [incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney] Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has not only broken her promises on reform prosecution, she also has broken the office in the process.” And, Katcher argued, “Every victim, defendant, and witness who comes through the doors of the courthouse deserves a Commonwealth’s Attorney that delivers Real Reform and Real Justice.” Also note that Katcher worked for both Dehghani-Tafti as well as for Theo Stamos, who lost to Dehghani-Tafti in the hard-fought, bare-knuckles 2019 Democratic primary.
With that in mind, here are some highlights from our interview, edited/condensed for length and readability (also, blue bolding is for emphasis of key points, including the reasons why he’s running against his former boss). I hope to also sit down with Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in the near future.
Blue Virginia: What got you interested in law in the first place, and in being a local prosecutor?
Josh Katcher: I went to high school at Lake Braddock [in Fairfax County]. It was the late 90s, and I remember reading in the Washington Post about a really violent MS-13 incident, and my unsophisticated high school mind said, “You know what? This is wrong. I want to stand up to people like that who think they can get away with these types of violent acts in our community.”
After high school, I went to Cornell for undergrad, with a general interest in law but not really connecting it with wanting to be a prosecutor. I was a high school theater kid and the idea of being in court, telling important stories, appealed to me.
By the time I was maybe a junior or a senior in college, it had crystallized that I’d like to be a prosecutor—at that point, I don’t think I even knew the difference between being a state versus a federal prosecutor.
I was fortunate to come back to Virginia to attend UVA Law. In law school I took a lot of criminal law classes. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a local prosecutor, because I did a prosecution clinic. My clinic placement was Fluvanna, Virginia. There, I tried my first case, and I just knew that I wanted to be down at the street level, right in the community. By the way, my first trial was trespass to hunt. Yup, that’s a real charge.
Being a defense attorney just never appealed to me in the same way. In no way is that criticism of what they do, because they’re vitally important to our system. I just knew that being on the prosecution side was where I felt at home.
After law school, I went to New York City and spent two years as a corporate litigator. I did that entirely because I was chasing my girlfriend, now my wife, and trying to convince her to marry me and come back to Virginia. And it actually worked! Honestly, I’m still a bit perplexed at my good fortune; she’s way out of my league.
After Jill got into business school, I quit my job and headed home. I went from living a New York City “Big Law” life-style to living in my parents’ basement. All this in pursuit of a dream job.
I remember reaching out through a connection to a Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney in the Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. My pitch was pretty simple. I was like, listen, I just quit a perfectly good job in a perfectly terrible economy to follow a dream. I billed something like 3,200 hours last year. And I’m willing to work for free. If you give me this chance, I promise you won’t regret it. Thankfully, they took me up on my offer.
I started off as an unpaid intern in the office, doing the gruntiest of grunt work—organizing the file room, making copies, redacting reports, running files up and down to lawyers in court…and I loved every moment of it. Keep in mind, for the longest time, I had just imagined working in a Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. It literally was the job I dreamed about. And now I was finally getting the opportunity to get my foot in the door. I spent three months trying to arrive in the office before everyone and trying to stay after everyone left. I just remember absolutely consuming the work. Eventually, there was an opening and I was offered the job. I formally started as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in early 2012.
Blue Virginia: To get at where you’re coming from, if you’re elected, are there any particular models for Commonwealth’s, or District Attorneys for that matter, around Virginia or the country, that you admire or would want to emulate?
Josh Katcher: I think Bryan Porter over in Alexandria has done a fantastic job of creating an office that is both flexible and structured. I believe they’ve gone vertical in terms of prosecution.
Here is what I mean when I say “vertical.” Prosecutors are either pinned to courts and court dates (that’s horizontal) or cases (that’s vertical).
Going vertical over horizontal is infinitely superior from an efficiency standpoint. It also establishes strong connections with victims. There was nothing weirder to me than jumping into an assault and battery, under a horizontal prosecution model, because you might be the third prosecutor that a victim talked to and, unless the file was well-documented, you weren’t always sure where things had left off.
Blue Virginia: When you look around the country and you think about some of the debate over more progressive prosecutors and more tough-on-crime prosecutors or anything in between…
Josh Katcher: Philosophically, I am absolutely a reform prosecutor and I have said that repeatedly. It’s my commitment and it’s going to be on everything I send out for this campaign. I’m all in on reform prosecution.
The general consensus in Northern Virginia is that we believe in reform. And to be clear, when I say reform prosecution, I’m not talking about leniency. Reform prosecution should be about the way that a prosecutor’s office approaches different types of cases. Reform prosecution to me is about precision in the application of judicial and prosecutorial resources.
But what does that actually mean? OK, imagine a line. On one side of the line, you have very serious cases that the community wants to see, rightly, aggressively prosecuted–gangs, guns, violent crimes, serious drug dealing (not marijuana), murder, etc. This really isn’t even politically contentious. A reform prosecutor says, ok, I’m going to aggressively prosecute those cases and in fact I’m going to be better positioned to do so. Why?
Because on the other side of that line are the types of cases that we’re going to spend fewer prosecutorial resources on. I think of those cases as having arrived in the justice system because of policy failures elsewhere–kids doing kid things, the mentally ill, the homeless, the addicted.
A reform prosecutor is able to correctly identify those cases that fall on that policy-failure side of the line. As a reform prosecutor, my goal is to connect those individuals with the services they need, craft a tailored approach with decency, and get them out of the system and on a better path—not to devote significant prosecutorial resources to gear up for a trial when that is an option. Importantly, where appropriate, I want to make sure the system has as little impact on them as possible and, through community services, to get them to a place where the justice system never sees them again. With that approach, you free up resources for investigations and trials of the significant cases that both deserve and demand that attention.
Blue Virginia: So how does that make you a reform prosecutor? What’s the difference between that and any other prosecutor? Wouldn’t everyone want to do that?
Josh Katcher: You would think so, right? That intellectually makes sense, but collectively we have come around to that position over time. The “law and order” approach of yesteryear could be described as, “Here’s your file. Convict on the maximum number of charges, get the biggest sentence possible and then on to the next one.” It’s pretty two-dimensional.
That mentality still exists elsewhere in the country and even elsewhere in Virginia. Reform prosecution is about contextualizing and humanizing cases to go beyond just the case file and someone’s criminal history and learn what you can about the person, to really work well with the opposing counsel, to know what type of services are in the community, and to link someone up when appropriate.
Blue Virginia: So a broader perspective maybe? More humane or maybe more science-based or more evidence-based? Less retribution oriented?
Josh Katcher: I tend to think of it as more contextualized and humanized. The reason why I use that language is because one, to contextualize means to put the person, the actor, in the context of his or her life. For example, if there has been very serious trauma in that person’s past, I believe that can be relevant in terms of whether a conviction is appropriate, what types of remedies are available, and what is an appropriate resolution.
In terms of humanizing, it can be easy to “otherize” the person you’re prosecuting as “the bad guy,” or “the criminal,” right? That goes against one of the core beliefs of a reform prosecutor, which is founded on looking at cases through a lens of decency, humanity and believing in optimism, mercy and redemption. I mean, those are the kinds of values that undergird all good prosecutors, but reform puts those principles at the forefront of the conversation.
Blue Virginia: And then there’s a balance between also with protecting the community and caring about the victims and all that?
Josh Katcher: That’s why the language that I use is very deliberate. Real Reform and Real Justice. Real Reform is the philosophy we were just talking about—I believe in it to my core. It’s Josh for real reform and real justice. It’s one thing to repeatedly say you are for it, and another thing entirely to actually execute on it.
On the other side. when I talk about real justice, we need to acknowledge that justice for victims should be legal bedrock. I mean, the system exists because way back in the day there were victims, right? From a Big Picture place, that’s how this whole justice system came to be.
When we’re talking about “real justice”, we need to champion the foundational importance of justice for victims. But justice is a complex word. It doesn’t only mean justice for victims. It also means having a just system so that when prosecutions occur, they’re done in a just manner. Historically, the rules governing discovery were extremely limited. A prosecutor could be within the technical rules and provide the absolute bare minimum which, in my opinion, is not a just manner of prosecution. The third component of justice is focused on outcomes. We want to make sure that the outcomes of a convicted individual are just and equitable. And so that’s why I use the language “real justice” to talk about and contemplate all three of those things.
By definition, prosecution includes accountability. Our community rightfully wants to see certain people held accountable and also rightfully wants to make sure that those people are not committing the crimes again. The last thing anyone wants to see – prosecutors or the community – the last thing we want to have happen is to have our system continue to be a revolving door.
A lot of discussion about prosecution wrongly assumes that the goal of a prosecution is a conviction. One of the main goals of prosecution, and if you want to go even deeper, the goal of having rules and laws in the first place, is so that crimes don’t happen. Deterrence includes envisioning prosecutions as a means of preventing recidivism. And how do we prevent recidivism in a lot of these policy-failure cases? Getting individuals connected with the needed services and community support so they don’t come back into the system.
Blue Virginia: And ultimately keeping the community safe in the most effective way. I guess it’s sort of this whole “smart-on-crime” versus “tough-on-crime” framing.
Josh Katcher: I detest the whole soft on crime/tough on crime debate. I think it’s so two-dimensional and so antiquated. It’s lazy, frankly. We, as Democrats, should be able to effectively brand ourselves as “smart on crime,” because I think we are.
Blue Virginia: Is what we’re talking about here? Different flavors or degrees of reform and how progressive are you?
Josh Katcher: No, I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. I believe the narrative frame of this whole race is not a question of whether we believe in reform. This isn’t a competition on how progressive or how reform-y you can prove yourself to be. Arlington clearly wants reform. I’m a reform prosecutor. Parisa is a reform prosecutor.
The debate here, really, is about how to effectively execute reform prosecution and how to ensure that we don’t miss out on the promise of reform. Because when I talk about the stakes of this, I truly believe that we need to get this right in the next four or six years. If we don’t, failures of individual offices are going to be conflated with failures of the philosophy, and I profoundly do not want that to happen. We would all be worse for it if it did.
Blue Virginia: I think this is a pretty good segue to talking a little bit about Theo Stamos, the sort of elephant in the room. Because you started with Theo, you worked with Theo, probably supported her reelection…and then you went to work for Parisa, who some people would see as maybe not the polar opposite of Theo, but certainly different and she certainly attacked Theo strongly…Theo was seen as tough on crime-type prosecutor…and then she actually ended up going to work for the Trump Administration, for Jason Miyares. So I don’t know if she was just hiding that all those years and really actually wasn’t a Democrat. Anyway, then you went to work with Parisa, who’s definitely not that. So I’m just trying to figure out how to reconcile that – how do you work for two people who are maybe, they’re not as different as people think but they seem really different. How do you explain that? I mean, you seemed to be perfectly comfortable working for Theo, and maybe even wanted her to be reelected, so afterwards did you reassess and decide actually you know I prefer Parisa’s approach or you thought more about your time with Theo or what? Are they not as different as people think?
Josh Katcher: I get that people want to talk about the 2019 race – it was hotly contested and very close – but honestly the core question before voters in this primary is whether we are going to execute on the promise of reform. Theo gave me my first job as a prosecutor, and for that I will always be grateful. Parisa hired me in 2020 and promoted me in 2021 to deputy. I am also grateful for that.
I think what you are really asking is how can you be a reform prosecutor and have worked for Theo, right? The obvious response is that I am and have always been a reform prosecutor. Parisa knew that when she hired me, when she elevated me to senior line prosecutor, and when she promoted me to Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney.
But also the simplest way to answer that is to say that you don’t always agree with everything your boss does, right?
I did not and continue to not have any interest in felony convictions for simple possession. Pease note that I am not talking about possession with intent to distribute charges involving drug dealers. Those are altogether different. To me, a simple possession charge should only be used as a means to connect people with substance abuse services. Substance abuse is a disorder, and we aren’t going to incarcerate our way out of addiction.
I am against the death penalty. I actually don’t know if Theo ever explicitly took the opposite position during the campaign, but, well, I guess you’d have to ask her.
I believe there is a role that restorative justice can play in the system and will play in the system once we build out capacity and understanding in the community. Again, I don’t think Theo ever explicitly spoke on the topic, or at least not how we are currently talking about it now, but I strongly suspect she would have some different thoughts.
But I also clearly have some practical disagreements with how the office is currently being run. The Commonwealth’s Attorney needs to be in the rotation trying cases because. I believe Real Reform happens in the courtroom. The office has become way too political, especially on social media. There are reasons that 12 attorneys have given their notice in 12 months–which is more than 50% of the attorneys in the office–and that there are currently a number of unfilled, fully-funded attorney positions that remain open.
Blue Virginia: So would you say you were overall comfortable working for Theo [for 8 years]?
Josh Katcher: It was a good environment to learn how to put together a case. I was surrounded by a lot of experienced, talented lawyers who trained me how to spot the issues in a case, how to become a strong legal writer, how to put the pieces of evidence together into a case that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt—and what to do when your case is challenging.
I got to learn not only by doing my own cases, but also by observing highly skilled people in court handling cases day in and day out. I was able to absorb and acquire skills that you just can’t get anywhere else other than being in the thick of it. There’s a reason I’ve tried over 50 jury trials and literally hundreds of bench trials. I also knew that I always had other, more experienced prosecutors in the office who could mentor me and supervise me in a way that continued to make me a better lawyer.
But learning how to put together a case doesn’t mean I never disagreed with the philosophical approach. I was approaching cases as a reform prosecutor before I knew what that label meant. And that did, at times, lead to friction.
In terms of staying on as a prosecutor for Parisa, it wasn’t difficult for me at all. If you think about how I approach the philosophy of reform prosecution, she and I are not that far apart. In early 2020 at the start of her administration, it felt like that was the direction we were going in and that we would be executing a vision that I already broadly agreed with.
Blue Virginia: Did some of the things going on, like the George Floyd murder, in the country and of course the Trump Administration, did that affect your thinking? Because I feel like when Theo was first elected and then re-elected, I don’t remember even anyone paying much attention to it at all, then all of a sudden this became…
Josh Katcher: I think criminal justice reform finally came to a head and got on a lot of people’s radars in 2017, 2018, 2019. When I started in 2011, people “in the industry,” as it were, were already working on these issues. The debate was not happening with the same intensity as it now is, but the discussions and efforts were still going on – at times, the actions and efforts were subtle, at other times, they were flagrant.
Blue Virginia: It added some urgency and maybe some passion maybe to it?
Josh Katcher: Yes. Unless you were already working within the system, this language and awareness was very limited. All of a sudden, you had a real opportunity to get into these issues with so many more people because it was now part of a bigger dialogue. For someone like me who’d been in this for a while, it felt like a gate had finally swung open.
When you start out as a prosecutor, you’re constantly looking for a basis for comparison. When you get a case, you look at it, you think, “Well this is what my gut is telling me, but I don’t really know where this lands on the spectrum of what we’re typically doing as an office.” It takes you two to three or four years to figure out where the office is.
If you’ve got a certain mindset, you actually start to go beyond just the facts of the case. When I was talking about humanizing and contextualizing cases, that’s something I was inclined to do early on, but didn’t have the skills to implement because I didn’t know enough about what I was doing. As a young prosecutor, I didn’t know what services were out there. I didn’t always know what questions to be asking. I could look at a case file and know if I had the elements of an offense, but I wouldn’t really be able to read between the lines and figure out if there was, for example, an underlying mental health condition was a contributing factor.
The longer I was in the office, the better I got at seeing and seeking out that information. I believe I always had the inclination to be doing that, but in a way the debate that we started having in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 unlocked an ability to really start having that at scale.
Blue Virginia: The phrase “Overton Window” just came to mind, where you’re shifting the realm of sort of what is it going to be considered acceptable or possible…
Josh Katcher: That’s a great way to think about it. Think about substance abuse. When I started in the office, I felt like we needed to be treating this as a disorder because, as I said earlier, we’re not going to incarcerate our way out of addiction. But the realm of what was possible back in 2011—the country was not really thinking in that way yet—hamstrung my efforts.
I got into some arguments in the office about how I believed that it was ridiculous to aggressively prosecute some of these offenses. I had some closed-door discussions with people about my disagreement that we were prosecuting individuals for being interdicted, which meant that they were constantly being found drunk in public and were legally declared to be habitual drunkards, which was the language of the law at the time. If that person was later found to be drunk in public as an interdicted individual, they were prosecuted and often put in jail. That law has since been repealed but 5 or 10 years ago, there was only a certain amount of willingness to figure out other ways to handle those cases beyond incarceration.
Blue Virginia: That’s helpful, thanks. I guess basically you’re similar ideologically to Parisa, sounds like your approach to criminal justice is pretty similar and yet you’re running against her. So I guess that gets into why are you running against her.
Josh Katcher: I’m running against her because we’re failing to execute on the promise of reform. Unfortunately, because of the way the office is being run, we don’t have the capacity to do real reform and real justice the way it needs to be done. Philosophically, we’re pretty similar and I know we both believe in the reform mission. I absolutely think she’s sincere with everything she’s trying to do and I say that without a drop of condescension. I mean, that’s why I was excited to be brought into the office in 2020.
The problem is, there are twelve people who have put in their notice in twelve months. There are a number of open, fully-funded positions in that office currently. If there are 21 or so funded positions and six vacancies, the office is understaffed. I can tell you that the prosecutors on the line are tragically overworked. These are good, decent, well-intentioned line prosecutors who are frankly being asked to do work in awful conditions.
Reform prosecution is a lot more complex than it sounds and requires both training and oversight. With the old-school, “law-and-order” mentality I talked about earlier, you could just tell a line prosecutor, “Get a conviction and ask for a jail sentence.”
For reform prosecution to mean anything, you need lawyers who know about the available services that are out there when figuring out a sentence. You need lawyers who know how to read between the lines on a case to understand how to proceed. You need lawyers to ask probing questions of opposing counsel. You also need a bench of experienced lawyers to provide support and oversight for junior people and who can be turned to when there are questions about which direction to go. When you have an office staffed with relatively inexperienced folks, these things are going to suffer. I’m honestly not trying to drag them—they are working in the trenches harder than you can imagine and trying their absolute best to do the right thing. But they are each carrying the workload of multiple lawyers because of staffing levels. Nearly all of the most experienced prosecutors have walked out the door.
Blue Virginia: I feel like what you’re implying is that – and tell me if I’m wrong – that Parisa’s not doing this well or she’s not doing it maybe as competently as she should be.
Josh Katcher: I believe that real reform prosecution actually happens in the courtroom, first and foremost. That needs to be the core focus of any reform-minded office. What happens in the courtroom is 95% of real reform. All of the other things that are happening outside of the court are great things to be doing and, overall, I support those efforts. However, I would not prioritize those areas over how cases are handled in the courthouse. The core focus needs to be making sure that a foundation exists so that your lawyers are supported and trained—not overworked and not put in a position where they can’t do the tough things that are required as a prosecutor. That has to be the number one priority. I know that is not what is happening.
A big issue with the execution of the reform prosecution mission in Arlington and the City of Falls Church is that it is hamstrung by the capacity issues in the office. A number of really good attorneys–really, really good prosecutors who were all in on the reform prosecution mission–have left the office because of the way that it is being run. The loss of those prosecutors is still felt today. The continued loss of attorneys is also making it even more difficult for the office to hire new people, let alone hiring experienced prosecutors.
So, your question is why? Lawyers are leaving, for the most part, for reasons related to management and leadership. I’ve had so many discussions with them before they’ve left, during their departure and after they’ve left, and it was very clear that for many of them this was a dream job. They didn’t want to leave but it was impossible to stay. I mean, the proof is in the pudding–at least two if not three of them have gone to other Commonwealth Attorney’s offices in other parts of the state. Most of the rest have found other prosecution-adjacent jobs. Not an insignificant number of them have said, “Give me a call if you win.”
To compare and contrast a little bit, when I first started looking for an internship 11 years ago, I was specifically told it would be foolish to try to get in the door in Arlington because there was never any turnover. There were some years that I was in the office where not a single attorney left for another position. Think about it, we’re talking about an office that represents Arlington and the City of Falls Church. It’s a very desirable place to live, we have proximity to DC, we pay well.
We should be the preeminent Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office in the whole state. There’s no reason that we can’t be the best reform prosecution office in the country.
Blue Virginia: You said real reform, real results means being honest about the challenges our community is facing. So what specific challenges do you think Arlington is facing right now with regard to crime. On a related note, Parisa responded to something you said in your campaign announcement that crime is rising. She said I guess we’ll have to now suffer through the right-wing talking points we just lived through in the midterms. It didn’t work for Fox News, it’s not going to work in Arlington. So put those two questions sort of together, but what is the situation in Arlington? She says crime’s not rising, that’s a right-wing talking point…
Josh Katcher: Let’s start with the obvious–I am not pointing the finger and talking about who’s to blame for crime rising. Let’s start there. I’m not doing that. What I am doing is bringing up the question of why our chief law enforcement officer is not willing to acknowledge that which is demonstrably true. I’m going to pull up the data right now—I think whenever anyone makes a comment about data, you should ask where they’re getting their data from. This is the 2021 annual report from the Arlington County Police Department, it is page 18, and it’s the first sentence—reported crimes against persons increased 24% in 2021 from 2020. So I would start by saying anyone who’s going to ask you to focus on just one data point—for example, homicide is down—is trying to distract you from the larger point. Pull the lens back and ask where are we on crimes against persons? In 2020, there were 210 aggravated assaults. In 2021, there were 263. That’s a meaningful and significant increase.
Blue Virginia: Of course, a lot of that had to do with COVID, right? Also, it’s a nationwide phenomenon, not specific to Arlington (and of course it’s really hard to draw conclusions from one jurisdiction)…
Josh Katcher: That’s why my focus is not on causality. The focus is not on what’s causing this increase. For me, it’s about honesty and transparency. Why is there an unwillingness to acknowledge what is obvious? I mean, 117 robberies in 2020 and 154 in 2021. Objectively, a number of categories of crimes that people are very concerned about are up. Denying that concerns me. Because if someone’s going to deny that in the face of truly objective statistics, what else are they unwilling to acknowledge? That, to me, is a serious issue and that’s why we’re talking about candor.
How do you claim to be focused on serious, violent crime, when you are unwilling to even acknowledge it?
While we’re talking about data and transparency, the incumbent also specifically campaigned in 2019 on the fact that the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office was a “black box” and needed to be transparent with data. As far as I can tell, no data has been released in any public fashion. By way of contrast, what I am proposing is that within the first 12 months of taking office, I will disclose whatever data is available to the public in an open source fashion so that people can look at it, digest it, and maybe even help us figure out what’s going on. I will do that whether it’s politically advantageous to do so or not. There’s no reason not to.
Blue Virginia: So trying to tie this together, you were saying the office isn’t run well or whatever…attorneys are leaving, does that have any real world impact? Like the average person walking around Arlington, would they have any idea that was even happening, how well the economic attorney’s office is being run or isn’t being or how badly is being run, does that have any effect? Like if that office is being run sub-optimally, does that in any way lead to worse public safety?
Josh Katcher: People’s interest in justice overall, and criminal justice reform specifically, is largely an abstract one in Arlington and Falls Church, because we’re fortunate to live in a relatively safe area. That said, we want prosecution to be done right in our community. When I talk about believing in reform as a community and then describing the fact that we’re not really doing reform the way we ought to be because of capacity and leadership issues, I do think it impacts the average citizen.
If you want me to go into specific examples of justice or injustice, this isn’t yet the time to discuss them. This campaign has just begun, and it’s important for the community to start to be aware that the office is in free fall. But make no mistake there are examples of outcomes that, if people were more aware of what was going on in the office, they’d be rightly upset.
But let me give you one example, the incumbent pulled the office out of traffic court. If you were the victim of an accident and you were showing up to court expecting to have a prosecutor there to hold the person who crashed into you accountable, you’re not going to have one. At best, you will have a police officer there to testify but not act as an advocate. If you moved since the accident? You probably wouldn’t get served with a subpoena letting you know about any court dates. Then when you don’t show up to a court date you don’t know about, the court dismisses the matter because there isn’t anyone there to alert the court to the fact that you didn’t get subpoenaed, let alone issue a new one to the correct address. You later learn about the charge getting dismissed and you probably say, “What the heck just happened?”
Generally, we are less capable of prosecuting certain types of crime than we previously were because of the loss of experienced prosecutors. Logically, if it takes an experienced prosecutor to handle a very serious case and you have less experienced prosecutors in the office, then your overall capacity is diminished. It’s exponentially diminished because the more seasoned prosecutors you lose, the more you place on the shoulders of your remaining seasoned prosecutors, and you pull them in too many directions. I know there are examples of cases that were not prosecuted the way that they should have been. In part, that’s because the lawyers that remain have not been given the guidance or resources to do so.
Blue Virginia: So a lot of it’s a feeling on the part of the public?
Josh Katcher: The feelings are real. These feelings are informed by facts and cases that we’ll get into as this race goes on. A critically important point in this whole race will be the focus on the way that the office is being managed. That’s why a lot of the incumbent’s core supporters have walked away from her; it’s because of what they’re specifically hearing coming out of the courthouse and they don’t like what they are hearing.
Blue Virginia: We can get into specific issues, from cash bail to mental health to racial disparities to juvenile justice, etc., but overall, is there anything where you say you really differ with Parisa, on all the things she ran on when she ran in 2019?
Josh Katcher: I have a several areas of distinction. When we talk about juvenile justice, that is an area that is so critically important to get right. For me, the default position–I think of any reform prosecutor—is that the best place for a kid is not the system. However, if they are going to be in this system, there are very few circumstances in which they should be certified as an adult.
For those reasons, I believe that your Commonwealth’s Attorney should specifically be in the juvenile court rotation of prosecutors actually handling those cases. That is something that I have done for years and years as a line prosecutor and is something I’m promising to continue to do as the Commonwealth’s Attorney. I believe that’s an important requirement because as Commonwealth’s Attorney, I want and need to have my fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in that court. By continuing to handle cases, I am not asking my people to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. With respect to juvenile justice, I would say philosophically I think that she and I are similarly aligned. In the actual execution of how to accomplish that goal, we are very, very different. She has not tried a single case as a prosecutor in any of our courts since taking office.
Blue Virginia: So again, it sounds like you and Parisa aren’t necessarily different philosophically, or at least it’s not particularly stark…
Josh Katcher: I’m your candidate if you mostly agree with Parisa but want to see it actually executed right. I’m your guy if you want someone who’s actually going to go into court and who’s actually prosecuted cases. I’m a proud Democrat. I always have been. That’s why when you hear this nonsense about “here come the Republican talking points,” that just sounds like such a brazenly political attack. We need less of that type of rhetoric in general and especially less of that from our Commonwealth Attorney’s office.
Blue Virginia: Four years ago, when Parisa first started running, I hadn’t necessarily heard any discontent or anger with the way Theo was running her office but once Parisa started articulating, then we started to hear it.
Josh Katcher: The thing that has struck me is that there were a lot of people who voted for Parisa last time that are very, very open to not voting for her again. There’s a real openness and willingness to engage in the discussion and look at an alternative.
Blue Virginia: It’s interesting, Parisa was nominated four years ago by a narrow margin in a situation with many unique circumstances. This time around, those conditions may not be in place.
Josh Katcher: Parisa hired me because she did her due diligence investigation and found out that I was a good reform prosecutor. She promoted me to Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. She put me in charge of the largest team in the office. That team, by the way, was made up of the most junior lawyers in the office. Not only did she do all that, but she placed me specifically in charge of training the next line prosecutors.
A lot of the attacks that I’m sure are going to come at me are going to be politically transparent. I’m not trying to make it personal and, frankly, I have no interest in making it personal. With that in mind, this election has the potential to be the purest form of debate about how reform prosecution should be done in this country. I think that would actually be useful. People are going to say, “Oh you’re just coming at her.” But the truth is, the focus of my critique is the way the office is being run and the outcome to the execution. And I want to keep it there.
Blue Virginia: Of course, ultimately, the criticism of how her office is being run is about her, if you believe the buck stops here.
Josh Katcher: It is important to focus on experience. It’s a tough job to be a prosecutor, it really is. It’s a tough job to do early on, when you’re entrusted to do DUIs. It gets tougher when you’re given more serious cases that are even more complex, especially involving victims.
When I talk about prosecuting MS-13 gang cases, what makes them so difficult is usually not the facts of the case—they can be a little tricky but once you’ve done enough of them, as I have, you come to understand the complexities and how to work with them. What makes those cases truly challenging are the victims themselves. MS-13 targets undocumented members of their own community. Not only do you need to reach out to these victims and get in contact with them, which is logistically challenging because they often don’t have stable housing, but they also need to trust you as well as trust a system that they may be wary of. They need to be willing to come in and testify. There are so many soft skills that go into those types of prosecutions, and you cannot be a passive observer. You need to know how to do it—or you need to be able to have a mentor with experience that you can shadow to watch how it’s done.
For anyone who has watched “Law and Order” and thought, “How hard is it? You’re just going to court, you say some words, and the person’s found guilty!” that could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of the work occurs behind the scenes. I’ve done so many trials, including many jury trials, because I’ve been entrusted to do them by leadership. That trial experience is critically important in how you’re going to train your team and how you’re going to run an office. You can’t have people coming to you for guidance and you do not have the practical experience to advise them.
Blue Virginia: So you’re saying Parisa doesn’t have that?
Josh Katcher: I’m saying that I do [have that]. I’m highlighting my own experience as a real strength that I bring to the table. I’m not trying to drag her. I’m putting forward my experience and saying that, especially in a community like this that wants to see certain cases handled in a tailored fashion but also wants to feel confident that the hard, violent case is going to be tried, I’ve got that experience.
I want to talk a little bit about restorative justice. I think that it’s going to be a tremendous tool in our arsenal when the capacity has been built out in the community. What I mean by that is that I think the average citizen has no fluency in what restorative justice means. I know I certainly didn’t, and I worked in the system for years.
In an ideal situation, rather than having prosecutors dictate whether restorative justice is appropriate, a victim would come in and say, “I’ve heard and learned a little bit about restorative justice, what can you tell me about it?” That way, as opposed to the office trying to convince a victim to agree to a restorative justice resolution for a case, victims have independently thought about it as an option that they may be amenable to.
The Big Picture idea for restorative justice is actually that some victims wouldn’t even come into the system at all because an awareness would exist of restorative justice as a wholly extra-judicial option. The way you get there is by working with some of the great organizations in the community who are building out that capacity.
The way I’m committed to employing restorative justice is in the place that makes the most sense to start with: schools. One, it can keep kids out of the justice system. Two, it builds up that capacity and fluency for both the parents and for the kids as they move into adulthood.
You’re also starting out with crimes that make the most sense to utilize a restorative justice model, right? If some kid TPs your house, spray paints something—you know what I’m talking about–those are the types of cases where you bring people together and you talk it through with an experienced restorative justice mediator. You can’t start at a serious sexual assault case and assume that’s going to work.
I bring this up here because there is an effort—I don’t know where this currently stands in terms of implementation—to have a restorative justice organization be based out of Commonwealth Attorney’s office.
I have serious concerns about that placement. I would never want a victim to feel like the Commonwealth’s Attorney was pushing restorative justice as an outcome. Victims of crimes, the harmed parties, should feel that they have the agency to freely give their input about whatever closure or healing that the justice system can actually provide. Housing and staffing a diversion program like restorative justice in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office easily could give the opposite perception.
I also think restorative justice is, in a way, a frontier in reform prosecution. In five to ten years, the capacity and understanding can be built out where it could be a really effective tool. For now, it may stay in juvenile justice for the near term, but even if that’s the case, it’s still a net positive.
Blue Virginia: So a bumper sticker, vote for Josh Katcher, he will competently manage this office?
Josh Katcher: “I Will Confidently And Competently Manage This Office” may not be the glossiest slogan. That said, competence and experience resonate and is meaningful with people when you talk to them. Arlingtonians expect and rightly demand that their government serve them well.
In Arlington and Falls Church, because we are sophisticated, well-educated communities, when I talk about competence, people get it and they expect it from their leaders. Talking about incrementalism doesn’t excite people. In reality, I believe what people want is someone who’s going to actually do the job and manage the office well from a place of experience.
I try to avoid using the word “promise”, because promises can be cheap and we have too many of them right now in politics. I believe a commitment is better. You could say there’s no meaningful semantic difference, but I believe there is. That’s why I talk about “Real Reform and Real Justice” as a commitment.
Blue Virginia: I mean, you commit to working on something, you don’t commit to “I am going to solve this problem.” You cannot do that. You can say I commit to working as hard and confidently as I can to addressing this problem and hoping to resolve it…
Josh Katcher: That’s why “Real Reform, Real Justice” is my commitment, not just my promise. It feels right in my core. The great thing about that language is it’s a real invitation for a discussion. I can’t tell you how many amazing conversations I’ve already had where I start by defining reform and justice and then explain what has not been happening versus what could happen under my leadership. But that’s what this whole campaign is about, right? The real execution of this commitment.