Virginia Prosecutor Announces New Criminal Justice Reforms, Asks Lawmakers to OK


By Lauren Smith

RICHMOND, VA – Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano announced a new sentencing reform policy here this past week that bans the use of mandatory minimums in plea deals except when “state law severely limits the flexibility of local prosecutors.”

The new policy also requires prosecutors to seek alternative to incarceration when the option is available and to stop charging youth as adults. The policy also states that the DA’s office will seek pretrial agreements in cases that allow for a defendant to avoid hard time “upon achieving rehabilitative benchmarks.”

Additionally, the new policy mandates that prosecutors will no longer charge felonies for minor offenses when “justice can be equally served through misdemeanor charges” instead. Prosecutors also must tailor probation time to the needs of each case and ensure that probation seeks a “specific rehabilitative goal.”

Descano also asked the General Assembly to ban mandatory minimums in the upcoming legislative session and emphasized that true sentencing reform cannot happen unless the state acts.

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

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

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

Descano argued, “Enough is enough. Virginia should lead the way in fighting the scourge of mass incarceration. Otherwise too many families will remain broken and struggling to pay the bills while a loved one spends holiday season after holiday season behind bars. I therefore urge the General Assembly to ban mandatory minimums in its coming legislative session.”

Descano’s other reforms include a stop to the prosecution of possession of marijuana, elimination of cash bail, and the formation of the Justice Advisory Council.

Lauren Smith is a fourth year student at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and Psychology. She is from San Diego, California.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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