Back on January 9, I posted an interview I did with Josh Katcher, a Democratic candidate for Arlington/Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney. Katcher is running against incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who was first elected in 2019, running on a progressive reform platform and defeating then-incumbent Theo Stamos (who was seen as more of a “tough-on-crime” prosecutor, and who went on after her defeat to go work for DoJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs from January 2020 to February 2022, then for right-wing-Republican Virginia AG Jason Miyares) in the Democratic primary, then running unopposed in the November general election. Also note that Katcher worked in Dehghani-Tafti’s office as Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney until last August, when he left prior to launching his campaign against Dehghani-Tafti.
With that background, here are some highlights from the interview with Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, edited/condensed for length and readability (also, blue bolding is for emphasis of key points, including the reasons why she thinks she deserves reelection, her thoughts on her challenger Josh Katcher, etc.).
Lowell: I’ll ask you the same question I asked your challenger, Josh Katcher – what got you interested in law in the first place, and specifically in being a local prosecutor? (I read your chapter in “Change From Within: Reimagining the 21st-Century Prosecutor,” in which you discuss this, but for people who haven’t read that…)
Parisa: Well one of the things that’s not in the book actually is that when I was seven, I was in Sunday School classes and I was asking my Sunday school teachers how do we know, how do we prove that God exists, and they would joke with my parents that I was going to become a lawyer. And my parents would joke that I was going to become a lawyer because I was always questioning things. But I never wanted to be a lawyer – I wanted to be a fashion designer, and then I wanted to be an artist, and then I wanted to be a philosopher. I really got into law because my friend was convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit. And I watched him get arrested – I watched this process where he was arrested for raping a 14-year-old girl, may have been 15, but I’m pretty sure it was 14 – and he went to trial and there was evidence that was not disclosed. I worked with his appellate attorney a little bit to try to help, and it just took years before he was ultimately exonerated by the court of appeals of California. But watching that whole trial process happen, hearing about it from his perspective, and his parents perspective – and there was sort of a train of friends that was keeping abreast of it – just made me realize that I needed to do something that was practical to fix this. It’s a little bit wildly optimistic to think that you could fix wrongful convictions, but I knew that I needed to do something. So I started volunteering for the San Francisco Public Defender’s office and applied to law school and then it was pretty clear in law school that I wanted to do criminal law.
Lowell: How did you decide between prosecutor versus the defense side?
Parisa: It’s actually the same reasons. It is because I had been fighting to reform the system from the outside. And I think I say this in in the book, but after a while, I didn’t want to keep being like the villagers plucking [babies] out of the river downstream instead of walking upstream to find out how they were getting thrown in to begin with.
Lowell: Right, why are the [proverbial] babies going in there in the first place? That’s a really striking visual.
Parisa: It’s a parable that’s been attributed to a number of people. But yeah, like the villagers, I looked up and decided to walk upstream and figure out what I could do there. I think I was a part of the first wave of people, but I certainly know the true pioneers were prosecutors like Stephanie Morales and Rachel Rollins; so other people that were in the book — I definitely was inspired by them and I’ve learned from them and am standing on their shoulders
Lowell: Prosecution and defense, do you think they’re basically two sides of the coin? Did one call to you more than the other?
Parisa: I think for me I had an affinity with the underdog and I think that’s part of defense work is you’re really representing the underdog, whereas innocence work is about that and this strong commitment to the truth. This is a line that runs through innocence work and prosecution in a way, because in innocence work you’re building up a case, you have to investigate facts, except that you’re investigating it without police officers; you’re doing it on your own with interns, maybe if you’re lucky you have a hired investigator and you’re working it like a cold case which is far out in time from when the events happened. You’re trying to find documents, you’re trying to find witnesses, you’re interviewing witnesses, putting together a case for innocence instead of someone’s guilt. It’s a combination of someone else is guilty and this person is innocent. So you often have to prove that even if you don’t know who that someone else is you have to prove that somebody else is guilty. Does that make sense?
Lowell: Yeah, thanks.
Parisa: So in that way it’s very much like prosecution work…those are kind of, in some ways, flip sides of the same coin.
Lowell: I think maybe for the general public they might see them as very opposite each other?
Parisa: But the work itself is the same: the idea is that you’re pursuing truth and pursuing it in a fair system.
Lowell: And both are essential in the system of justice; you have to have them both. Neither of them are evil or good inherently, they’re each doing their role…Even the most evil murderer or whatever has the right to a lawyer…that’s how the system works.
Parisa: I mean it’s only as good as the people in it.
Lowell: And as the system is constructed as well…It’s both I guess. Were there any particular models or Commonwealth or district attorneys around Virginia or the country that you admired or wanted to emulate?
Parisa: I think there’s a lot of folks and some of them I met after the primary actually. But I think in terms of the people who inspired me to run it was really Stephanie Morales, Rachel Rollins, Larry Krasner, Kim Fox. Those were the people I was thinking about. I thought if they can do it and do it in the way that they’re doing it, then it seems like something that that I could contribute to.
Lowell: How would you define what a reform prosecutor is exactly? Your opponent says it’s about it, “precision in the application of judicial and prosecutorial resources,” “contextualizing and humanizing cases to go beyond just the case file and someone’s criminal history and learn what you can about the person.” Do you agree with that or what would you add/subtract?
Parisa: I think that applies to any kind of prosecutor. A reform prosecutor is somebody who is trying to dismantle the inequities in the system and create a fairer [system]. I think it’s somebody who is motivated by racial equity. I think it’s somebody who wants to treat mental illness and substance addiction as a public health problem. I think it’s somebody who wants to treat even violence as a public health problem. And I think a reformer has to be willing to reimagine the system to function in a different way…
Lowell: You’re saying take the system as it is and tweak it or fundamentally change it/revolutionize it?
Parisa: Eventually the goal is to try to make the footprint of the system smaller, I think the goal is to try to get things like restorative justice in place so that people are handling their conflicts in that realm. Particularly given if you consider half of the victims of violent crime don’t report crimes – and that bears out in Arlington. I conducted listening sessions with victims and victim advocates, and the people who are most often not reporting are people of color, Black people, immigrants, people in over-policed communities. And if you want to protect those people you have to create a system that they can trust. And just looking at that, a system that gives them alternatives within the legal system and protects them once they’re in the legal system with things like U visas, things like witness protection programs. And then even if they are the actual perpetrator, to protect their due process rights and not play procedural games and even if it puts your as the government sometimes at a disadvantage, because you’re trying to be fair.
Lowell: So how much change is required in the system to be a reform prosecutor? I mean, is the system right now fundamentally broken or is it somewhat working would you say and it’s just needs some tweaks or is it like fundamentally just wrong and misconceived and misguided or whatever and you just need to reimagine it completely or reinvent it?
Parisa: So if you think about the system as it is, it really started with Reconstruction. And it’s during Reconstruction when you see the prison population go from primarily White to primarily Black. And so, our system I think is functioning in the ways that it was conceived to function, but it’s just not in line with our values.
Lowell: Was that mostly in the South or was that in the whole country?
Parisa: That was in the whole country, but particularly in the South. And you saw different movements where there were attempted reforms around the turn of the 20th century, you saw a progressive movement that understood that crime is a result of socioeconomic status but only applied that to European immigrants, so that philosophy didn’t get transferred to Black people.
Lowell: Even though socioeconomics are highly correlated with race?
Parisa: Yes, at the time they were highly correlated…Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants, so we fixed it for them but didn’t fix it for Black people.
Lowell: So would you say the criminal justice system in this country is inherently racist? It’s not race neutral?
Parisa: It’s not race neutral and I don’t think it was meant to be race neutral at its inception. I think it’s telling we’re talking on Martin Luther King Day. What’s baked into our system – and it’s deeply baked into our system – is the justifications for slavery. And the idea being that supporters of slavery had to ‘other’ Black people, had to make it seem like Black people were criminals. So that this false narrative of criminality emerged. And that false narrative got worse at Reconstruction and it continued through the early 20th century it continued through the Civil Rights Movement and we’re still dealing with those vestiges. There are studies that have shown we still are operating from that narrative, even if unconsciously. So I think that there’s a lot of work to do, I think it’s going to take decades to do it because it took centuries to get to where we are now …I’m not done after three years. But I think that right now, without building alternatives, building the infrastructure that is an alternative, we can’t imagine what a system looks like that doesn’t operate with its primary tool as incarceration, a system that doesn’t equate justice with a certain number of years of incarceration, a system that puts people in a position of not committing crimes…and provides the safety nets that people need to flourish and have hope in their lives.
Lowell: Right, so when you were saying the system’s only as good as the people in it and I was saying, well it’s a system, I mean really we’re getting at no matter how good the people are, if the system’s set up in a fundamental way that is antithetical to our values, if it’s fundamentally flawed, then almost no matter how good the people are – you might have well-meaning people in the system that’s broken and there’s only so much they can do, right?
Parisa: That’s true, but I think both can be true at the same time, where the current structure we have is only as good as the people that are in it and the imagination of people, the courage of the people who are in it, but we need to imagine something and build something better. And I think it’s one of those things where if we build it they will come.
Lowell: Hopefully, yeah. It’s interesting, we’re talking about Reconstruction in the 1870s or whatever, that’s a long time ago, and yet has anything gotten better or really or is it pretty much about the same?
Parisa: My husband just wrote this really incredible law review article about a couple that kept being prosecuted for violating anti-miscegenation laws in Tennessee. We’re not prosecuting people for violating anti-miscegenation laws anymore, but when we employ mandatory minimums – and I understand the reason why mandatory minimums were first put in place and I understand the reason why sentencing guidelines were put in place – but the results have driven mass incarceration. For example, if you have a “possession with intent to distribute third” so you’ve gotten in trouble two times and it’s your third strike, whether or not you’re a dealer who makes a ton of money off of it, your mandatory sentence is going to be ten years.
Lowell: Yeah, seems so arbitrary, that’s your public policy because it’s three strikes in baseball, what if it were five strikes in baseball, it would be five strikes and you’re out?
Parisa: And it’s disproportionate, like a 10-year mandatory minimum and we’ve created prisons that don’t leave any room to rehabilitate people at all, and we have a horrendous recidivism rate. And the one thing that’s that makes you most likely to recidivate is having had a long prison sentence.
Lowell: You mean it’s not a wholesome environment in there? (said sarcastically)
Parisa: It’s not a wholesome environment, we’re not training people, we’re not paying them for the jobs that they do; people come out worse most of the time than better. And that’s another thing that we need to work on: if you do have to incarcerate somebody that it’s not so long and so brutal that there’s no room before we get rehabilitation.
Lowell: It’s supposed to be a ‘correctional’ system, but so much for that. That’s the theory, at least, it’s supposed to be correctional.
Parisa: That’s what they’re officially called, that sounds not rehabilitative to me…
Lowell: What would you say the main differences are in how the office is run by you compared to your predecessor?
Parisa: This is going to take more than an hour. So let’s talk about the reform aspects? When I got into office, I asked independent researchers to come in and look at the racial disparities and what they found, they looked at from 2017 and 2018, and what they found – and I can send you the report – what they found was that Black people were charged at a 50% higher rate than White people when it was law enforcement…
Lowell: For similar crimes?
Parisa: If you controlled for seriousness, they were charged at a higher rate, if you control for other factors – age and gender and things like that – Black people were charged at a 50 higher rate of seriousness. When the office had control of it, it was 52%, and…Black people were more likely to get convicted, they were more likely to get a carceral sentence, they were more likely to get longer carceral sentences and they were more likely to get lengthy probation sentences. And it was…a hard look at what was happening and then built policies to address some of those things like not using mandatory minimums unless we absolutely had to, and I got resistance from inside the office from people who said well you know we should be colorblind and “I’m colorblind and I don’t look at race.” But if you’re going to address racial disparities you have to look at race and you have to account for overpoliced communities, you have to account for the position that we put people in. And by the way, I’ve asked those same researchers to come and take a look at what we did in 2020, 2021, and the first half of 2022. So that’s in progress right now. I’m also willing to take a hard look at what have we done to keep our promises. And if we haven’t been effective, then let’s figure out how to fix it. And if it is, let’s figure out how to refine it and make it even better. So that’s one key difference.
Lowell: Was that a problem specific to Theo Stamos’ office?
Parisa: Well, no, it wasn’t specific to Theo. The fact is, a lot of these offices that have been run by career prosecutors are in a state of atrophy, period. For another example and I know this happened in other jurisdictions throughout Virginia and Northern Virginia so it’s not unique to Arlington, but I walked into that office and I had the Department of Technology Services do an audit of our technology. What they found was that our email was not integrated with the county’s and was not secure. The case management system was on a server in the closet that was crashing on a regular basis and not in the cloud and so people couldn’t access files from home and also it was hackable. Our Wi-Fi was not really functional…There was no investment in any kind of technology that would help get Fair Discovery to anyone. People weren’t redacting reports and sending them by email or putting them on flash drive. It was sometimes very simple things like buying duplicating machines. I mean that office, there were physical files everywhere; there was neglect and atrophy. We really dragged that office into the 21st century because it was not in the 21st century. For 15 years, Arlington County and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office were talking about a mental health behavioral health docket and nothing was getting done. That’s a huge difference. When I say I did something I don’t mean I personally did it; there were a lot of stakeholders who n 2019 started really started pushing on this to create a behavioral health docket. A key departure for me from the prior Administration was that they wanted it to be post-plea, so you had to plead guilty in order to get the services. I said no because from my perspective, if we’re going to work on not criminalizing mental illness then you can’t force people into pleading guilty because that’s criminalizing mental illness…
Lowell: The things you promised to change – eliminate cash bail, increase transparency and accountability, expand and implement effective diversion programs, stop prosecuting simple marijuana possession, focus on serious crimes, support victims, creative conviction integrity units – would you say you’ve done all those things?
Parisa: From day one we stopped asking for cash bail. Not a single one of my attorneys has ever walked into court and asked for cash bail….huge change. We reduced the jail population by 30 percent…And then if you look at COVID, I mean I don’t know what could have happened with somebody else at the helm, but in mid-February I was sitting down with the public defender I was sitting down with the sheriff’s office and we were saying OK, what do we do to keep the community safe…
Lowell: This was in mid-February 2020, when COVID was just really getting going in this country?
Parisa: Right exactly. and it was a month before the shutdown started. And we came up with a plan together and then internally we came up with a plan. My chief Deputy and I did it with epidemiologists at the Department of Health and we did the research to figure out what we could do. Internally, I put us on a rotating schedule where it was team one, team two and team three, so one team was in one week and then out for two weeks because we couldn’t just telework. And in terms of the jail population, I was getting lists every day from the Sheriff’s Office and every day we would go through it. We started out with anybody who had a cash bail because the judges are still imposing cash bails; $3,000 or less who hadn’t made it for three or four days, we were calling to their attorneys and saying file for reconsideration. Then we went to $5,000; then we went to $10,000, so we were just moving through just making sure that we got the population down and we avoided an outbreak in the jail. And it was just as much for the people in the jail as for the officers that are working in the jail and the officers and families and communities. And in my office, we went 18 months without a single positive, which I think is amazing because people…were pretty much all coming in by summertime of 2020.
Lowell: So we can go through each one of these, but these are the things you pledged would be different.
Parisa: And they are [different]. And the transparency it’s not just with the racial disparity data but we have a newsletter that we send out regularly. I have a community Advisory board and a social media presence, which is important because people understand what my perspective is, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking. And people have reported crimes to me …people have reached out about very serious things both on Twitter and on Facebook.
Lowell: That’s interesting, I don’t think your predecessor was particularly social media adept or interested. Maybe Commonwealth’s Attorneys just weren’t.
Parisa: I mean, I think it’s somewhat generational, but I also think that it’s all about how you perceive your role, and if you perceive your role as holistically as being available to the community and being transparent then you should be out there telling the community what you think…
Lowell: Of course, social media, you can get yourself in trouble real fast, it can be nasty and toxic on there and all that…
Parisa: It’s true, I try to stay above the fray…
Lowell: That segues a little bit into…your opponent claims the office has become way too political especially on social media…what is that about?
Parisa: I don’t really know what it means. I think you should be on social media, I think it’s a part of transparency I think it’s an important part of being available to the community and letting the community know who you are and what you’re doing. I mean, is it political to say I’m not going to prosecute pregnant people because…
Lowell: I guess political could be that you’re endorsing other candidates or you’re campaigning for people or you know you’re doing political?
Parisa: That happens all the time, whether it’s on social media or not.
Lowell: Maybe the biggest criticism your opponent has leveled, he says there are reasons that 12 attorneys have given up their notice in 12 months, which is more than 50 percent of the attorneys in the office, basically attorneys are leaving your office. My understanding is that this is something of a national phenomenon, but maybe you’d like to elaborate a little more on that?
Parisa: It’s absolutely not specific to Arlington. I don’t know what more evidence one would need than a Reuters article saying it’s a national crisis, the national District Attorney’s Association saying it’s a national crisis…And the fact that we’re in Arlington where there’s federal jobs available right within one stoplight…There’s dozens if not hundreds of agencies.
Lowell: For the person who is going to read this who doesn’t study this stuff, why is this happening across the country again? What’s the problem right now with all these prosecutors leaving?
Parisa: I think it’s a combination, because I think people who’ve been doing this for 20, 30 years who are part of that boom of when law school graduations were sort of peaking are leaving and retiring. You have COVID, which has caused a lot of people to re-examine their work-life balance and what they’re doing and the meaningfulness of what they’re doing…weighing it the stress of what they’re doing.
Lowell: And this is a very stressful time-consuming job, right? A lot of burnout in this job?
Parisa: I think that reformers in particular face burnout because of the scrutiny that we’ve been under. I want to talk a little bit about the Circuit Court specifically with that because that in Arlington that’s a peculiar problem. But in general it’s been an issue. But public defenders are also having challenges, they have incredibly stressful jobs as well. Police are having challenges; I don’t know what the vacancy rate is for the police department right now but I think it’s between 20 and 30 percent, which is a lot. The Sheriff’s Office is similar. I was talking to somebody at DHS a couple of weeks ago and they were saying that half of their clinician staff is vacant. So I said this in the forum: instead of weaponizing this to score political points we need to be asking ourselves why is it that people who are doing the most important service jobs – nurses, teachers, police, public defenders, prosecutors, social workers – why these particular fields hemorrhaging people and having trouble bringing people in? We need to start having real policy conversations about what needs to change in order to change instead of blaming.
Lowell: Instead of blaming for political reasons is what you’re saying? What your opponent’s doing is basically saying it’s because of you.
Parisa: I mean and the other thing I would say is that he’s looking at 13 months – for eight of those 13 months he was a manager…he didn’t just work in the office, he was a manager, right?
Lowell: He was your deputy, is that the proper way to…
Parisa: He was one of the deputies…I have a chief deputy and three deputies…Everybody can’t report to me. We have the victim witness that reports to the victim witness director, support staff like paralegals and front desk folks who report to the office administrator and three deputies that the line attorneys report to, and they and the chief deputy report to me.
Lowell: Did you reorganize their office when you came out or was that pretty much how it was?
Parisa: It wasn’t very dissimilar structurally; what I really reorganized was I created vertical prosecution. And what that means is that an attorney gets to stays with the case instead of what used to happen, which was advanced docket prep where…you’d get your cases three weeks in advance and prepare for the cases three weeks from now and then you go into court and if the case got continued that case then got the put back in the hopper and then the next time around a different attorney…
Lowell: So there’s no continuity with that?
Parisa: For the most serious cases they wouldn’t do that, with a murder case for example. But for the vast majority of cases that’s how it went. We couldn’t do advanced prep now even if we wanted to — I mean it’s good that we went vertical, particularly in hindsight, when we did because body-worn cameras would have made anything but vertical impossible because attorneys have to be familiar with the footage of the body-worn cameras and if you’re preparing your cases three weeks in advance and then you’re watching it and somebody else is watching in and somebody else is watching it – that would be a disaster.
Lowell: I don’t know how long those things are, but it could be a fair amount to watch…
Parisa: We have about 15,000 hours of body-worn camera a year. This goes into some of the burnout. A case that used to be 30 minutes of reviewing a file is now potentially four, five, six hours of body worn camera on the top of the file…
I also want, as we’re talking about stress and reform, I want to talk about specifically about another source of stress. This is going to be like a little bit of a long-winded story so I apologize for that but I think it’s important to understand where we are and how and how we got here. In September 2019. the prior administration had to dismiss the biggest credit card fraud case that Arlington had ever seen – 53 or 55 counts of fraud. It was a case that the ACPD investigated; they arrested the defendants, but the office failed in its discovery obligations so thoroughly that they had to dismiss it and the federal government came in and took over the case. They got a conviction about a month ago. But, in dismissing that case – and this is really telling – the office went in and said, judge we’d like to nolle pros this case and the judge was about to grant the nolle pros motion when the public defender said well wait, what’s the good cause, because the nolle pros statute says the court may with good cause shown nolle pros a case. So the judge said essentially, I don’t remember the exact quote, but the judge said essentially they don’t have to show a good cause unless there’s an objection, is there an objection? And the public defender sort of steps back and they have a conversation and they come back on the record and say no there’s no objection the court grants the nolle pros. The biggest fraud case Arlington has ever seen, the court said the Commonwealth does not have to give a reason to dismiss this case.
Lowell: That seems crazy…
Parisa: I walked in to the same circuit court in January of 2020, asked to dismiss a case that was 1/8th of an ounce of marijuana for an individual who had a medical marijuana card and the court made us brief the issue….That’s the first time we were trying to dismiss, the first time where…
Lowell: That was just when you came in, you were just sworn in?
Parisa: The first time in Circuit Court we tried to dismiss something we had to brief it and it was that case. Then like eight weeks in, we get an order that is unprecedented in Virginia or anywhere else that I know that says we have to articulate every single factual basis and every single legal basis to amend a charge downward – not upward, but downwards – and to dismiss the case or to nolle pros the case. Basically the court was saying you can’t litigate a case the way you want to even though you’re a party and one of the most sacrosanct things of being a litigant is that you get to litigate a case the way that you want to litigate a case, the court is saying no…
Lowell: And you’re a constitutional officer, elected official…separation of powers?
Parisa: I tried to sit down with the court and didn’t get a meeting for several weeks… there was a palpable difference in a way from different administrations. I mean there wasn’t even time to do anything before they were treating us differently and… interestingly the Supreme Court didn’t say that that order was okay, what they said was we want to see a case where there’s prejudice from this order, which the fact of the matter is I’m not going to let the case get to a place where there’s actual prejudice because that would be a huge injustice. But the actual prejudice in terms of our office is that we have to spend hours and hours and hours briefing things that never had to be briefed before, physically writing documents and filing documents that never had to be filed before.
Lowell: Does that have anything to do with the burnout and these people leaving, maybe?
Parisa: I mean, look, if I was a bad manager, we wouldn’t have gotten the work that we got done. If I was a bad manager, I wouldn’t be forming the relationships with other stakeholders and other agencies to come up with initiatives together to do things. Nothing would have gotten done.
Lowell: But it’s already a hard job and then if you get this with the court doing this, treating you differently, making it harder…
Parisa: And I’m not going to say that I’m perfect, I’m not going to say that nobody left because they didn’t like me or they didn’t like one of the middle managers. Because people leave for a lot of different reasons. Some people leave for happy reasons like becoming a judge or getting married…
Lowell: Or running for office…LOL
Parisa: And people leave for sad reasons…there’s a lot of reasons why people leave….And if you ask some of the former public defenders they’ll tell you that they left because of the psychological damage they were suffering from the circuit court, like it’s not normal for people to walk out of court crying on a regular basis…not a good situation.
Lowell: It’s hard to come up with metrics that you could say with any politician, how do you say they’ve succeeded , they’ve failed they’ve done well, they haven’t done well. I mean you could say okay this is what they promised, this is what they delivered, but a lot of other things happened too like a COVID pandemic or maybe war breaks out or whatever happens….anything could happen, things change and there could be a million reasons… like crime could go up and it has nothing to do with anything to do with the prosecutors or anything it has to do with something totally different…
Parisa: It usually doesn’t have anything to do with the prosecutors….
Lowell: In general, is there any independent way to determine how well you’re doing (or any politician is doing)?
Parisa: I think you can look at a person’s body of work. You can look at my 20 years of experience before I came into the office and say, she did the hard work of making the system better before and she’s done the hard work of making the system better now. And you can look for characteristics, right? When I say I’m against the death penalty and I’ve had clients who had been sentenced to death, I’ve fought for their constitutional rights, I’ve said publicly that I would never pursue the death penalty, I’ve said publicly that it has one place in a civilized society. I said it before it became a popular thing to say, and I lived my values.
Lowell: So there’s corroborating evidence to what you’re saying. Your opponent says he’s always been against the death penalty, but is there any way to know? We can’t read people’s minds…
Parisa But also if you’re going to be against the death penalty, why go to an office that is going to be charging with a death penalty.
Lowell: I think his response was somewhat fair, basically do people agree with every single thing their employer did?
Parisa: No, but would they stand up and fight for something they didn’t believe? Would they fight for something that was so antithetical to their values?
Lowell: I guess to the extent that you can, or lose your job or quit I guess. You can always resign. It’s like people who stayed in the Trump Administration, some of them said, well if I left it would only be worse and I tried to do good from within…
Parisa: And do you buy that?
Lowell: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think so, but I don’t know.
Parisa: Would you go work for Miyares?
Lowell: No, I wouldn’t work for Miyares.
Parisa: But there’s no amount of money that anybody could have paid me to have gone and worked for Barr…or Miyares. And there’s no amount of money that anybody could have paid me to become a prosecutor under an Administration that asks for cash bail, under an Administration that that is willing to deploy the death penalty, under an Administration that asks for mandatory minimums. There’s no amount of money you could pay me to do that.
Lowell: I guess it’s like if you agree with 95%, you disagree strongly with 5%. I the Miyares case, I’d say he’s evil; I told Theo Stamos that on the phone…he’s just bad in every way. I don’t really agree with him on almost anything…
Parisa: If you in environmental justice and you work for an employer that says here go take out this toxic waste every day and go pour it into the river. I mean, everything else is fine but they say go to pour out the toxic waste into the river…
Lowell: No, that’s antithetical to my values and I’m not doing it. I’d just quit…
Parisa: If you’re a reformer, you stand up and have the courage of your convictions, because this is what that job takes. You can’t go along to get along, right? You have to have the courage of your convictions to stand up and do the things that are hard…to paraphrase MLK, the measure of a man isn’t what he does during when it’s easy but what he does when it’s hard…So to me, If you’re a reformer, you don’t go to court and ask for things every day that you say are antithetical to your values. You don’t support candidates whose platform is antithetical to your stated values. And if you weren’t a reformer then, when exactly did you become one? Invoking my name, my vision, and my work — as the only bona fides you have to prove you’re a reformer — isn’t being a reformer. OR, one is not really a reformer and just is hoping everyone will project their own beliefs onto you.
Lowell: Sometimes what happens is people work in an organization and see the things that they hate and then they’re like, I gotta change this. And they become a reformer. This has happened., but I have no idea if that’s happened in this case. Of course, he came to work for you and then he left…
Parisa: You have a choice in Northern Virginia, a whole lot of choices…a lot of law jobs around, a lot of jobs a lot of prosecutor jobs ….This was one of the most regressive jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, so one makes a choice… In 2019, one makes a choice. A lot of people in the office stayed neutral.
Lowell: No doubt, people have agency and make choices… But in terms of judging an incumbent’s record, I find it somewhat difficult. With legislators, you can say they voted for these bills… that’s clear, it’s on the record.
Parisa: Why can’t you say you enacted these policies?
Lowell: Yeah you can say that. Now whether they succeeded or not, that’s probably longer term, a lot of the stuff doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s not like ok we just eliminated this and now it’s paradise. It doesn’t work that way.
Parisa: It took us 400 years to get here and we’re talking about reformers are like one percent if that of the entire community of prosecutors in the entire nation
Lowell: That’s it? Wow. Depends how you define it or what?
Parisa: There’s over 2,400 elected prosecutors and there’s like 75 reformers…
Lowell: You mean, in a movement or self-identify as reform prosecutors?
Parisa: I think the people who are willing to take racial justice head on, let’s just say that, one percent of us maybe. The people who are against cash bail, who don’t want to certify kids, who have the sort of platform — there’s about 75 of us. Let’s be generous and say 200. Okay, but that’s still a tiny percentage. When did this movement start, 2014 2015? Not very long…when you started seeing people who were challenging traditional prosecutors, we were starting to see people running on a platform that says we need to change our legal system and our justice system…so you really you haven’t even had a full decade of that conversation…
Lowell: So your opponent, Josh Katcher, you ended up hiring him…It’s kind of interesting, he worked for Theo Stamos…he worked with one office that’s very different than your office and yet he worked for both. I gotta presume there are others that carried over from the two offices. So how could you work for one that believes this constellation of views including the death penalty, etc, and another one that has another constellation of view that’s very different, including does NOT believe in the death penalty…how can you work for both, they’re so different, how can you reconcile working for both?
Parisa: There’s a lot of shots that he can take at me that because I was a manager I can’t…because I’m privy to a person’s HR personnel file and I’m not going to violate the law…it’s very asymmetrical…He can make representations about people who’ve left and again it’s very asymmetrical because I can’t say what actually happened in in some of these situations, so again that’s very asymmetrical. What I can say is I needed some institutional knowledge; I was changing over about half of the attorneys and it would have been utterly reckless for me to change over 100% of the attorneys, because then there would have been no institutional knowledge left. And that was part of the decision. And I thought he would be a competent lawyer and be able to try cases, which is, by the way NOT where reform happens.
Lowell: Yeah, I was gonna raise that, he says that it happens in the courtroom.
Parisa: I don’t know if that’s an utter lack of knowledge or if that’s just saying because it’s sort of a thing that was litigated in the last election. A trial is NOT where reform happens. If you look at every single reform platform, if you look at every single organization, every advocacy group, every researcher, every professor, when they talk about reform they’re not talking about in trial (of course pre-trial rights are the subject of reform and one of the things I’m most proud of is the policy about peremptory strikes, which addresses racial disparities in jurors), when the defendant has the most robust set of rights activated. They’re not talking about literally what reform can actually happen in the middle of litigation in an adversarial system. Reform happens when you’re making decisions about whether to lock somebody up pre-trial. Reform happens when you’re deciding whether or not to criminalize poverty by asking for cash bail. Reform happens when you’re deciding whether or not to let somebody go back to a treatment program for a while. Reform happens when you’re deciding to let somebody get a bed into a substance abuse program. It happens when you’re deciding what to charge right and what discovery to give…Are you charging in such a way and stacking charges in such a way that you’re essentially coercing guilty pleas? Are you giving people a fair shot to litigate their constitutional rights? Are you giving people a fair shot to go to a trial right?
Lowell: And then the law itself of course exactly Democrats control the legislature for two years have passed a lot of criminal justice reforms.
Parisa: Exactly. And I’m not going to take credit for what the legislature passed. But I think that the reform prosecutors gave them cover to do some of what they were able to do.
Lowell: Yeah, because it was considered very politically risky or even suicidal in the past. Bill Clinton was a tough-on-crime Democrat…that was the safe place in a way, politically…
Parisa: Reform happens way before you get into court.
Lowell: Most voters probably aren’t aware, they probably say wow you’re in the courtroom and like Perry Mason…
Parisa: When 95%-98% of cases get resolved before trial…it doesn’t make any sense that reform would happen in the two to five percent of cases that end up in trials. Why would it make any sense for those cases to be the area where reform happens.
Lowell: That’s an interesting point, because that’s one of the core arguments that Josh Katcher is making…that most of what happens is in court.
Parisa: That’s also disingenuous, because if we’re talking about strategy for trial, if we’re talking about the mechanics of cross-examination, if we’re talking about the admissibility of evidence, if we’re talking about opening and closing arguments, I did all those things as an innocence protection attorney. Because it’s not in front of a jury as a prosecutor doesn’t mean that it has no value…
Lowell: It’s like you guys are talking past each other completely in some ways…
Parisa: I think it’s telling that when the only experience that you value is the prosecutor experience… I’ve done a range of things and I’ve worked with people who’ve done a range of things and I value diversity of experience — which is what my staff has. Yes, you can’t find 300 years of prosecutorial experience when you walk into the office, but what you do find is people with 20 years of experience as public defenders and defense attorneys, with me with 10 years as an innocence attorney and six years as a public defender.
Lowell: Right, there’s all kinds of different experience, it could be very valuable in its own way.
Parisa: Exactly, and diversity matters to me because I want people who can imagine a different system. And I want people who have the courage to fight for it.
Lowell: That’s a really good point, that makes sense. Anything else we didn’t cover? I think we’ve covered a lot.
Parisa: I’m happy to spend hours with you but I think you might want to jump off the roof if we do that…
Lowell: LOL. Presumably you have some of this detailed information on your website or the voters want to get more detailed information I don’t know if we have to go over it.
Parisa: I mean it’s on my website, but also the county website has the office’s justice digests. So if they want to see step by step what I’ve been doing…And I’ve tried to balance the digest with a combination of what are the sort of significant cases that we’ve worked on, what are the significant reforms we’ve worked on, what I’ve been doing in the community, here’s an issue that’s really interesting, meet one of our employees. So I’ve tried to really open, I mean you can’t have people coming in and taking tours of the office, but I’ve tried to give people as much of a glimpse into what has always been a black box. There’s also some information that I just can’t talk about, there’s a professional responsibility that says lawyers can’t talk about pending cases but I have the most transparent administration in the history of Arlington and probably anywhere in Northern Virginia….the fact that I have the community advisory board. I will not make a big to-do about something because knowing that if I do that it’s going to harm the victim. I ask victims what level of publicity they feel comfortable with and I try to be sensitive to that…I’m as transparent as I think anybody could possibly be…
Lowell: Yeah, I mostly just wanted to give you a chance to respond to Josh’s criticisms.
Parisa: The substance of the matter is if you look at what I’ve actually done, I’ve actually shared a lot with the community and I’ve shared much more with the community than most elected officials do…and certainly my predecessor. You can’t set up a straw man and say you know she promised x and didn’t deliver when …I don’t know what he’s talking about when he says she promised data. The most important promise I made about data was about racial disparities and I followed through on that immediately. And that report came out in August of 2020 and I looked at it and I thought well, I can I can send this out as a press release and throw fuel on a fire of the protests that were happening or I can start doing the work and make it publicly available and not to try to continue the campaign. So it’s been publicly available, I’ve talked to the Washington Post about it, I’ve given it to people, I’ve shared it with the office, I’ve shared it with stakeholders, I’ve been very transparent about the fact that it exists and what it says. But I didn’t want to sort of political points on it and continue an old political campaign in a period that would have been really harmful to the community to do that…
Lowell: Anything else voters should be aware of? Endorsements? Anything else?
Parisa: I mean, I have gotten an incredible list of endorsements: Don Beyer, Jennifer McClellan, Jennifer Carol Foy, Patrick Hope, Matt de Ferranti, Takis, Monique O’Grady, School Board folks; Paul Ferguson who is the Clerk of the Court, who’s seen my work close up; the legislators I worked with; more endorsements coming soon.
Lowell: We’ll keep an eye out for those. Thanks!