Non-profit

Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice

Formation:

2020

Type:

Attorney’s association

Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice (VPPFJ) is a professional association of local prosecutors who support left-of-center criminal justice policies.

VPPFJ is an outgrowth of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA), an ostensibly nonpartisan professional association of Virginia prosecutors. VACA and similar organizations often advocate for policies aligned with a political faction despite their legal obligations to remain politically neutral. VACA was considered a conservative group and blocked most criminal justice reform efforts, which prompted backlash from the group’s more left-leaning members who have become emboldened as Virginia has steadily drifted toward the Democratic Party over the last decade. In 2019, a wave of Democratic prosecutors were elected, and in 2020, Democrats gained control of the state legislature for the first time since the early 1990s. [1][2]

In July 2020, eleven VACA members formed VPPFJ to advocate for left-of-center policies, though they retained their VACA memberships. The founding members represented cities and counties covering about 40% of Virginia’s population, including Alexandria and Charlottesville. [3] A twelfth member would later join. [4]

Policy Views

In its inaugural statement, Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice called for seven policy changes: permitting prosecutors unlimited access to police records on cases of police misconduct, a requirement for all warrants to be served during the day and with sufficient announcement, ending six-month drivers license suspensions on all drug convictions, opening avenues for expunging criminal convictions from an individual’s record, removing mandatory minimum sentencing laws, extending deferred deposition, and codifying the discretionary power of prosecutors. [5]

Many VPPFJ members have used their prosecutorial power to advocate for specific policy goals. Arlington County attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (D-Arlington County) and Fairfax County attorney Steve Descano (D-Fairfax County) have refused to prosecute marijuana crimes, and Prince William County attorney Amy Ashworth (D-Prince William County) supports marijuana decriminalization. All three support ending the death penalty. Portsmouth attorney Stephanie Morales (D-Portsmouth) and Norfolk attorney Gregory Underwood (D-Norfolk) also support reducing marijuana prosecutions. [6] Some members refused to enforce laws that restrict abortion access or issue cash bails. [7]

In January 2021, VPPF wrote to the state legislature to advocate for an overhaul of Virginia’s criminal justice system. The letter advocated for a free and automatic process of expunging criminal records, an end to mandatory minimum sentencing, an end to cash bail, the abolition of the death penalty, and the removal of larceny from the state’s “three strikes” sentencing-enhancement laws. [8]

In 2021, VPPFJ successfully lobbied the Virginia state legislature to make Virginia the first Southern state to legalize marijuana and abolish the death penalty. [9]

Black Lives Matter

Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice claims inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to reform the criminal justice system after the death of George Floyd. [10][11]

In an October 2020 interview, VPPFJ founding member Stephanie Morales stated that individuals who did not support the Black Lives Matter movement were “unfit to serve” in public office. She advocated “dismantle[ing] and rebuild[ing] the criminal justice system by defunding the police in favor of mental health and other welfare services, and even suggested limiting the power of her own prosecutor’s office. [12]

Criticism

Zack Smith and Charles Stimson of the Heritage Foundation called the members of Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice “rogue prosecutor[s]” for supposedly rejecting the traditional structures of legal authority and attempting to unilaterally overhaul the state government. Smith and Stimson claim that these actions will alienate Virginia’s police departments from its attorneys’ offices, and cause crime rates to rise. They also accused VPPFJ member Steve Descano of Fairfax of dereliction of duty for explicitly refusing to prosecute numerous crimes, including all misdemeanors, allegedly due to low staffing. [13]

References

  1. Nichanian, Daniel. “Eleven Prosecutors Form A Progressive Alliance In Virginia.” The Appeal. July 28, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://theappeal.org/politicalreport/virginia-prosecutors-form-progressive-alliance/. ^
  2. Davis, Angela J. “The Carceral Force of Prosecutor Associations, Explained.” The Appeal. February 26, 2021. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://theappeal.org/the-lab/explainers/the-carceral-force-of-prosecutor-associations-explained/. ^
  3. “Stephanie Morales.” Twitter. July 13, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://twitter.com/AttyStepMorales/status/1282813934391656450. ^
  4. Arzy, Leily. “A Prosecutor Makes the Case for Transforming the System.” Brennan Center for Justice. October 9, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/prosecutor-makes-case-transforming-system. ^
  5. “Stephanie Morales.” Twitter. July 13, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://twitter.com/AttyStepMorales/status/1282813934391656450. ^
  6. Nichanian, Daniel. “Eleven Prosecutors Form A Progressive Alliance In Virginia.” The Appeal. July 28, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://theappeal.org/politicalreport/virginia-prosecutors-form-progressive-alliance/. ^
  7. Burk, Eric. “Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice Call for More Criminal Justice Reform.” Tennessee Star. January 7, 2021. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://tennesseestar.com/2021/01/07/virginia-progressive-prosecutors-for-justice-call-for-more-criminal-justice-reform/. ^
  8. Matray, Margaret. “’Progressive prosecutors’ want Virginia to end the death penalty, cash bail and mandatory minimums.” Virginia Pilot. January 4, 2021. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.pilotonline.com/news/crime/vp-nw-progressive-prosecutors-20210104-i3zgfbrvqjag5nxzkuaalu52ny-story.html. ^
  9. Davis, Angela J. “The Carceral Force of Prosecutor Associations, Explained.” The Appeal. February 26, 2021. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://theappeal.org/the-lab/explainers/the-carceral-force-of-prosecutor-associations-explained/. ^
  10. Nichanian, Daniel. “Eleven Prosecutors Form A Progressive Alliance In Virginia.” The Appeal. July 28, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://theappeal.org/politicalreport/virginia-prosecutors-form-progressive-alliance/. ^
  11. Head, Leondra. “Cities Rising Summit focuses on criminal justice.” CBS News. October 13, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.cbs19news.com/story/42663384/cities-rising-summit-focus-on-criminal-justice. ^
  12. Arzy, Leily. “A Prosecutor Makes the Case for Transforming the System.” Brennan Center for Justice. October 9, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/prosecutor-makes-case-transforming-system. ^
  13. Smith, Zack; Stimson, Charles. “Meet Steve Descano, the Rogue Prosecutor Whose Policies Are Wrecking Havoc in Fairfax County, Virginia.” Heritage Foundation. December 14, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.heritage.org/crime-and-justice/commentary/meet-steve-descano-the-rogue-prosecutor-whose-policies-are-wreaking. ^
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