Progressive Challenger Defeats Incumbent Prosecutor In Virginia Primary

A progressive challenger unseated the incumbent Democratic prosecutor in Arlington County, Virginia, notching another win for the national movement for a more compassionate criminal justice system.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a veteran criminal defense attorney serving as legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, defeated Theo Stamos, who presently serves as Arlington County commonwealth’s attorney, or what is usually called a district attorney in other states’ counties.
Having secured the Democratic nomination in a solid blue county just outside Washington, Dehghani-Tafti is virtually assured a victory in the general election.
“Dehghani-Tafti’s win represents the real power that issues like criminal justice reform have among voters across the political spectrum but especially Democrats and more progressive voters,” said Quentin Kidd, dean of social sciences at Christopher Newport University. “This win not only pushes criminal justice reform higher up the agenda in Virginia, but I’d also imagine it will encourage similar challenges from progressives in other parts of the state.”
Dehghani-Tafti ran on a platform of significantly reducing incarceration in Arlington by, among other things, ending prosecution of marijuana possession and barring the use of cash bail for nonviolent offenders. She argued that Stamos’ tough and racially lopsided prosecutions of low-level offenses have put Arlington out of step with politically comparable counties. The challenger noted that, notwithstanding declining crime in the county, its jail population is 2.5 times the size of neighboring Fairfax County.
Unlike many insurgent candidates, Dehghani-Tafti boasted major establishment support, including endorsements from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Fairfax County Del. Marcus Simon and the editorial board of The Washington Post, which panned Stamos’ tenure. The Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, spent more than $615,000 in support of her bid.
Dehghani-Tafti, whose husband is African American, also spoke about the implications of criminal justice reform for her family.
“When I think about why our justice system needs change, I think about my kids,” Dehghani-Tafti says in a video advertisement as her multiracial children appear on screen. “I want to live in a world where the color of their skin doesn’t affect their odds of an arrest.”

Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun via Getty Images)

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, hugs Lamar Johnson, who was released after 13 years in jail, on Sept. 19, 2017, in Baltimore. Dehghani-Tafti won the Democratic primary for commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington County, Virginia.

Until recently, prosecutors’ races attracted very limited attention and resources. Across the country, local prosecutors, whose reelections were often a mere formality, measured their success by the number of people they locked up and the length of sentences.
As part of a growing awareness of local prosecutors’ role in expanding the U.S. jail and prison populations, however, the movement for a more compassionate criminal justice system began getting involved in their elections. In recent years, proponents of reform have elected a number of their champions, including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Rachael Rollins in Boston and Wesley Bell in St. Louis.
Arlington, a racially diverse but affluent cluster of largely suburban communities outside Washington, does not have the same name recognition of America’s largest cities. But with nearly 240,000 people, it is larger than Providence, Rhode Island, or Birmingham, Alabama.

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