ARLINGTON, Va. (WDVM) — Before she was elected commonwealth’s attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church in 2019, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign was tough on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.
In 2018, she studied how Black, Hispanic and white offenders’ cases were litigated in Arlington’s court system. In cases of the same offense, Black individuals were more likely to be convicted and were more likely to be handed harsher sentences.
“Once the charging decision became the provenance of the office, the disparity got worse,” she said. “I’ve been trying to sort of turn that ship around and it takes a lot of conscious and conscientious effort and partnerships with folks who can provide supportive systems and information based on what evidence actually works to make the system more fair and maintain public safety.”
Earlier this month, Dehghani-Tafti announced she’s partnering with the Vera Institute of Justice to reduce racial disparities in Arlington and Falls Church’s criminal legal systems by at least 20%. The institute is currently working with government and civil leaders in over 40 states.
“They’re one of the first organizations that’s really about the data. And that’s new for prosecutors,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “We don’t have systems in most offices where we can just spit out data — even about our cases, let along the larger picture of the criminal legal system — and it’s only fair to the community that we actually engage in evidence-based practices.”
“This is literally the opposite of what prosecutors have traditionally run on. They’ve traditionally run on high conviction rates, tough on crime approaches, and so I think this is the beginning of a real opportunity to get impact,” said Jami Hodge, the Vera Institute’s director of the Reshaping Prosecution Program.
The institute and the Dehghani-Tafti’s office will work on:
- Policy and strategy recommendations
- Data on the disparate impact of prosecution practices on Black people and other marginalized communities
- Educational materials and programming designed and delivered in partnership with people from communities most impacted by the criminal legal system
- Financial support to Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), a community-based organization that will partner with the prosecutors to implement racially equitable policies and practices
“Those answers to what we imagine justice looks like aren’t going to lie inside a prosecutor’s office, they’re not going to lie inside a courtroom,” said Hodge. “They truly are going to come from the people who are closest to the problem, who are closest to the solution, and really should be closer to the power.”
According to the Vera Institute, people of color make up 30% of the U.S. population and 60% of the prison population.
“From the very beginning of how our country was founded, this is how the system has been used and we’ve seen later examples of the intentionality behind these systems continuing to be used for the control and oppression of Black people,” said Hodge. “So the disparities are not by accident.”
“If we want a vibrant, thriving community, we really can’t tolerate collateral consequences that lock people out of educational systems and out of housing and out of jobs,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “We should care because the entire community’s well being is at stake.”