Northern Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorneys Seek Big Budget Increases

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Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano’s (D) office is getting more funding, after the Board of Supervisors adopted a budget for 2022 on Tuesday, according to the Tysons Reporter. The budget includes $8 million for Descano’s office, about 27 percent more than $6.3 million for fiscal year 2021. But that’s far less than the $19.1 million budget Descano has said his office needs.

In 2020, Descano said he needed 84 new positions to add to his staff of 45, according to The Washington Post. Reston Now reported that Descano proposed a short-term solution of hiring 20 staff for $2 million, but that’s only a partial solution.

Other Northern Virginia Prosecutors Seek Major Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Increases

Last week, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors approved funding seven new positions in Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth’s (D) office with a $952,000 increase to Ashworth’s office. Still, that increase is significantly less than the 41 new positions and $5.2 million Ashworth requested to maintain current levels of prosecution in the office, according to to The Prince William Times.

A $5.2 million increase would have been 78 percent more than $6.7 million budgeted in 2021; Ashworth also proposed a middle ground $3.8 million option, a 57 percent increase. The $952,000 increase approved by the Board is a 14 percent increase.

In her request, Ashworth warned that not granting the increase will likely mean local police will have to prosecute misdemeanors and traffic charges. Ashworth told The Virginia Star that currently, her office is the only prosecutor’s office in Virginia that prosecutes all cases. In other jurisdictions, some cases are left to police to prosecute, an extra burden. But without the extra funding, Ashworth is facing tough decisions.

Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj (D) asked for 12 positions and $1.6 million in funding to be added to her office, according to Loudoun Now.  That would have been about 32 percent increase more than the nearly $4.9 million in the 2021 budget. But a budget approved by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors only grants four new positions and $478,806, about a 10 percent increase. In heated meetings, board members worried about high turnover in Biberaj’s office as well as claims of low numbers of cases taken to trial.

When asking for his budget increase, Descano warned that he wouldn’t be able to prosecute lower-level crimes properly, according to The Washington Post. Biberaj and Ashworth have made similar statements.

The three counties are different sizes — Fairfax County has 1.1 million people; Prince William County has 446,094, and Loudoun County has 363,050, according to Ballotpedia.

Descano, Biberaj, and Ashworth were all elected in 2019, and are part of the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, who have called for an end to the death penalty, cash bail, and mandatory minimums.

In October, Heritage Legal Fellow Zack Smith argued that progressive prosecutors represent a new prosecutorial philosophy. He said, “They’re just refusing to enforce laws they disagree with and in a lot of ways are really overstepping their bounds and usurping the role of the legislature with those types of practices.”

Some progressive prosecutors have said they wouldn’t enforce certain types of cases like misdemeanor marijuana cases or anti-abortion laws. Choosing to not enforce certain classes of laws for ideological reasons is different from not having the manpower to prosecute cases, forcing police to prosecute the cases.

Prince William County

Ashworth said progressive prosecutor ideals didn’t affect her staffing needs. Ashworth’s predecessor was in office for 52 years. She said her request for more staff was just catching up to population growth and law enforcement growth in the county.

“I have the benefit of having worked in this office for 11 years prior to having the privilege of being elected Commonwealth’s Attorney,” she said. “I knew when I was here from 2005 to 2016 that it seemed like we were just incredibly busy and didn’t have enough people to do everything that we needed to do.”

“I was a position that they added in 2005. I know they added three positions in 2016. I don’t think there were any positions in between but I could be wrong on that,” she said. “They would add 25 officers, we would add zero prosecutors.”

She thinks that some cases were falling through the cracks under her predecessor, based on a comparison with similar jurisdictions of cases sentenced at the felony level.

“My guess, if you will, is that there were too many cases for prosecutors to deal with them effectively,” she said.

Ashworth said cases need to be considered individually.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to have this outcome for every shoplifting case,'” she said. “What caused that person to come into the system? Is prosecuting going to keep them from re-offending, or not? What is the victim’s position on what needs to be done? So doing that takes a lot of effort.”

Ashworth said she spoke to other Commonwealth’s Attorneys with similar sized jurisdictions.

In its 2021 budget the City of Virginia Beach, population 448,479, included $9.5 million dollars for Commonwealth Attorney Collin Stolle’s (R) office, nearly $3 million more than Prince William County’s 2021 budget, even though both localities have approximately the same population according to Ballotpedia.

“I remember Collin Stolle from Virginia Beach saying, ‘Well, we only do domestic violence and DUI and some other misdemeanors, well what do you do?’ And I said, ‘We do everything,'” Ashworth said.

“And I had 28 prosecutors at the time, and he had 44. And I had 13 staff, and he had 22,” she said.

Ashworth said Descano had a similar experience that led him to say he wouldn’t prosecute some misdemeanors.  She said, “They really hadn’t had a shakeup in the office for fifty-some years.”

Loudoun County

Part of the reason the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors didn’t grant Biberaj the full increase she requested was concern that Biberaj wasn’t prosecuting every case and was ignoring victims of domestic violence.

In a March meeting, Chair Phyllis Randall said, “I’ve talked to our non-profits, especially the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, and the things that I am hearing do not comport with the things you are saying, most especially when it comes to domestic violence abuse and partner abuse,” she said. “In fact, the things that I am hearing, the letters I have, the emails I have, the text message screenshots I have would curl somebody’s toes to look at them. They are frightening in many, many ways.”

Biberaj said that prosecution is more than just seeking conviction and noted that domestic violence cases can range from just a shove to violent beatings. She told the Board that physically violent cases were rare and were handled appropriately. She told The Virginia Star that first offense cases often don’t end in neat convictions. As for the rest, Biberaj said her goal was to allow people to remain in the community, at work, and with their families as much as possible.

“The people of Loudoun County voted a different administration into office so that we could do things differently. The old way of doing cookie-cutter things where were just processing people is no longer valid because ethics values show that that does not show value for our community,” she told the board.

Supervisor Kristen Umstattd said in the meeting, “If we’re seeing in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office a shift away from criminal prosecution, especially in domestic abuse cases, violent domestic abuse cases, and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office wants to move more towards counseling, which is what I heard in the last presentation and tonight, we have services already for counseling, mental health does a very good job.”

Biberaj told The Star that her new way of doing things was part of the reason she needed to increase higher staffing levels. She described a traditional workflow. In other states, prosecutors issue arrest warrants, meaning they already have familiarity with the cases. In Virginia, arrest warrants are issued by magistrates, which means Virginia prosecutors have less time with the cases.

“Prosecutors, literally, what they do, they get their cases a couple of days in advance of their hearing dates. So there’s no preparation there. Literally, they’re forced to go to court and try to wing things, and that’s not justice,” Biberaj said.

As a result, prosecutors are left relying on police reports, which may give an incomplete picture. She said, “What I required my attorneys to do is to talk to victims, talk to law enforcement officers in advance of the hearing dates.”

Biberaj said combining the additional advance work required and the hours spent watching body-camera footage creates the staffing and budgetary shortage.

Biberaj and Ashworth said that prosecutors are required to watch body-camera footage from law enforcement officers, an extra burden on the offices. Virginia requires one assistant commonwealth’s attorney position per 75 body-worn cameras. But Biberaj said realistically, the cameras each generate at least one hour of footage per week, and said two attorneys are necessary to watch the 75 hours of footage.

“I don’t know how they came up with the one attorney per 75 body-worn cameras,” Biberaj said. “Honestly, it’s like someone just didn’t understand math.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network.  Email tips to [email protected]

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