Four years ago, we were in the midst of the anti-Trump resistance, with many first-time Democratic candidates (including numerous women and people of color) stepping up to run for public office. Among those new candidates was Buta Biberaj, who ran for Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney as one of several progressive/reform prosecutors that year – and went on to win the general election in November 2019.
Back in May 2019, I sat down with Biberaj for a lengthy interview, which I ended up publishing in three parts (Part 1 focused on who Biberaj is, her reasons for running, her views on what the main job of and qualifications for the Commonwealth’s Attorney should be, etc; Part 2 focused on her thoughts regarding prosecutorial discretion, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the “discovery system,” and the role of the Public Defender’s office vis-a-vis the Commonwealth’s Attorney; Part 3 focused on hot-button issues like the death penalty, cash bail, cooperation – or not – with ICE, civil asset forfeiture, the 2016 “amicus brief” regarding restoration of ex-felons’ rights). So check that out for background.
Anyway, almost four years since the 2019 primary – and a *highly* tumultuous four years, at that, with the COVID pandemic, 2020 presidential election, January 6th insurrection, etc. – Biberaj on Monday is going to be announcing her campaign for reelection. I had a chance to chat with her Sunday afternoon; see below for her thoughts on the past four years, some of the criticisms about her, and what her vision is going forward.
On the tumultuous past three years: “I’m very excited about the work that we’ve done and the work that we can continue to do. I think the last three years, as you’ve indicated, have been tumultuous, and we’ve had to deal with things that none of us could have anticipated. But the good thing is we’ve seen the changes we’ve made have been impactful and helpful to our community and further emboldens me to want to do more…in providing our community with safety and justice within the system.”
On the criminal justice system being constructed over many decades and the need for more time to work on reforming it: “Oh definitely…We see the pushback that we’ve had in wanting to make these changes. And as everybody knows, change requires time, change requires dedication, and then change also requires people to see results, and that’s going to help them understand and embrace the change. But they still fight, because they’ve been so comfortable with the way things have been for generations and literally centuries. So yes, we definitely need time to make those changes. But the changes we’ve been able to make the last three years have been transformative.”
On whether she’s accomplished most/some of the long list of goals she laid out when she ran in 2019: “We’ve done a great job of prioritizing victim support. In my office, what I did is I reorganized the office to protect victims by raising the number of special victims unit attorneys that focus on domestic assault and sexual assault from 2 to 6 attorneys; we increased the number of victims case managers from 4 to 7; and we were also fortunate to win a $330k federal grant to expand education prevention of sexual assault. So when we start talking about what promises I made in 2019 and what I’ve been able to deliver, focusing on our victims services has definitely been a success.
And this is a job that is not yet finished. So we want to continue that momentum to do better. We definitely made strides, but are we 100% meeting all the needs of our community? No, that’s going to come with time and resources.
I think we’ve been successful in moving forward, especially in areas like reducing incarceration, because we know nationally that we have a problem with mass incarceration. In Loudoun, we’ve been able to reduce our daily jail population from 425 to 250; that’s a savings of over $40k a day…almost $14 million a year that the community can reallocate for programs, education, mental health services. So that was huge, because we’re not locking people up because we are locking people up, we’re locking up people that should not be in the community. And those who could be safely returned to the community, then those are the ones we want to make sure are able to maintain their jobs, housing, family, all those things that provide stability. That’s been another huge success that we’ve been able to achieve.
I also made a huge commitment to change the culture in our office. We now have a staff that represents our community. Our office, I would suggest to you, is the most diverse in the whole county…and that’s what you need…the community looks at and says, ‘I see me and I see somebody who’s going to respect me and provide me dignity when they are dealing with the court system.’ That’s something we’ve been able to do.
The other thing that we’ve also been able to work on is making sure that when we’re dealing with the courts that we’re providing them with the information that is needed to make the best decisions. So we’ve been able to do that as well.”
On turnover in Commonwealth’s Attorneys offices: “I don’t view it as a problem, I view it as an opportunity because of this reason – when I came into this office, I promised we were going to change the culture. We had personnel in the office that it was hard for them to change their lens, it was hard for them to be able to adapt to what we wanted to do. COVID hit. They were offered opportunities for advancement. They were offered opportunities to join other offices that might have been closer to their home or maybe for more money. So those were all opportunities. So what we’re doing…is we’re continually building our team. We have from a competitive perspective…a civil attorneys team in Loudoun which is the county attorney’s office…within the last few years they’ve had a turnover maybe almost 50 percent of their attorneys. That’s just because opportunities are there. I personally poached one of their
attorneys from them; it was a great addition to our office.
So this is what we do is that we look to advance people, we look to make sure that the opportunities they have best meet their talents…I’m going throw a sports analogy…If you look at the teams that we have playing today in the Super Bowl, if you look at the roster for the team today it is different than a team that was last year. Why? Because you’re always improving. You’re trying to find the right mix, right matches the right talents to be successful. That’s why growth and change is good. And that’s the promise I made to our community and that’s the promise I kept.”
On criticism that her office is supposedly an “HR nightmare”: “What are they looking at, are they putting it in context? So for you to change the culture and be a new administration that has not had a change in 16 years? If no one is expecting that there’s going to be a change in the administration or change in the personnel, that’s naive on their part. We’ve had to work hard with our HR department to make sure that our salaries are commensurate with the roles, and that’s been a two and a half year battle. But those are the things we’ve worked through with management. So no, I don’t don’t look at it as an HR nightmare, I look at it really as an opportunity to say we came, we promised we were going to change the culture and we’re delivering.”
On criticism that she won’t be involved in the prosecution of certain misdemeanor crimes: “What we did is, we were taking a look into the types of cases that come before our courts. And I don’t know if…you’ve ever had a speeding ticket, if a speeding ticket comes before the court, the judge says, alright, how do you plead? You say, I plead guilty – it’s between you, the judge and the officer. You say you plead NOT guilty – it’s between you, the judge and the officer. So none of that has changed.
And the other thing is we have statutes that don’t authorize Commonwealth’s Attorneys offices to prosecute things that are not a felony, which is the mandate we do have. We have the ability to prosecute class 1 and class 2 misdemeanors which carry a potential for jail; and class three misdemeanors in other matters that have a maximum punishment of $500 or more. Most of our traffic infractions don’t have that. So class 4 misdemeanors have a maximum punishment of $250 as a fine. Class 3 misdemeanors have a maximum punishment of $500 as a fine.
So these are things that we do, is we notify the court that we’re going to use the first return date as an arraignment which says, judge, we’re going to look at the individual’s record, we’re going to look at the facts, and let you know which cases would we waive, not ask for jail so that they can go directly between the judges, the officer and the accused…. and we’re going to take between that date and the trial date and actually invest the time to watch body-worn cameras, have conversations with the law enforcement and be able to view the police reports.
Because if we touch a case, if we’re involved in something as simple as a traffic infraction, we have an ethical obligation to watch all the body-worn cameras, see if there’s any Brady disclosures or Giglio which is impeachment evidence…For traffic infractions, we might have to invest two hours. Well, if I take two hours for a speeding ticket or something that doesn’t have a potential for jail, I’ve got to take those two hours from my rapes, my murders, my robberies. And I’ve spoken to my community. My community wants us to keep them safe from those serious crimes. And in Loudoun County…we’ve been very successful, because safety is up and crime is down. Within the last year…crime as as reported by the sheriff’s office is down 12 1/2% in Loudoun, but it went up…in Virginia. So it’s working.”
On fearmongering about crime by Republicans: “[That’s] why we have to use data points to combat the misdirection of facts, where they say, ‘oh my gosh, these progressive prosecutors or these innovative prosecutors or these new prosecutors, look what’s happening in their community where crime is running amok.’ And then when you sit down they say ‘well, actually no it’s not.’ And especially in Northern Virginia, I think every one of us who is new to this position from 2019, has been successful in their communities that crime has gone down. Then you have the Attorney General or the Governor making misstatements. They say something that has nothing to do with our function or role or their function or role. But it gets lost in the politics, because they’re they’re playing to pander for the next step that they want to go into politics, and the rest of us what we’re doing is we’re here to protect the people.”
On Youngkin and Miyares going after Loudoun County in particular, fear-mongering about crime: “Miyares comes from Virginia Beach. So he’s somebody who wants to talk about his community? I would put my stats in Loudoun County against his *any day of the week*.”
On support for her reelection campaign: “We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve got a strong number of commitments for endorsements. We’re going to announce them tomorrow, but I’m just going to give you a couple. We had former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn has endorsed us; from our local delegation we’ve had Senators John Bell, Jennifer Boysko and Barbara Favola have endorsed us; Delegate David Reid has endorsed us. And we also just recently got Congressman Don Beyer to endorse us. So we’ve got strong partnerships with our elected officials. Because although we are local Commonwealth’s Attorneys, things that people do at the state level with the General Assembly make our jobs easier and they facilitate the ability for us to be able to make sure that we are providing safety and justice to our community.”
Final thoughts? “One thing I want to say is this, you mentioned this at the onset of our conversation, that we’ve been attacked for the last few years, and especially in Loudoun County, for things that didn’t even involve the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, we’ve been able to withstand those attacks. And you know for this job, I’m battle tested and Loudoun strong, so I’ll stand on that… I think it’s important work that we do. And the changes that we are able to bring to the table makes people fearful, because these systems as you and [Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney] Parisa [Dehghani-Tafti] discussed, took them generations and centuries to put them in a position where what you’re doing is you’re using the systems not to elevate and have people be successful but to how to keep them in a suppressed role in our society. For sure, it scares people, especially now when we have such a divisive country….We’re going to continue to be in the arena and continue with the fight.”