- Was elected Commonwealth’s Attorney (C.A.) of Arlington County and Falls Church, Virginia in 2019
- Her 2019 campaign for C.A. was financially supported by George Soros.
- Opposes the cash bail system
- Opposes the death penalty
- Supports rehabilitation programs as alternatives to prison
- Opposes prosecution of marijuana-related crimes
Born in Iran in 1974, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti relocated with her family to the United States when she was four years old. She earned a B.A. degree in Philosophy and Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley in 1997, and a J.D. degree from New York University School of Law in 2001.
Dehghani-Tafti began her professional career working as an Associate at Holland & Knight LLP from 2001-2005. She transitioned to the public sector when she joined the Public Defender Service of Washington, D.C., where she was a Staff Attorney from 2006-2011. After a one-year stint as an Associate Professor at New York Law School from 2011-2012, Dehghani-Tafti returned to the D.C. metropolitan area in 2012 when she became Legal Counsel for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP), whose mission is “to prevent and correct the [criminal] conviction of innocent people in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.” She was promoted to MAIP Legal Director in 2017 and served in that capacity until her departure from the organization in 2019.
Also during her years in the D.C. area, Dehghani-Tafti resided in Northern Virginia’s affluent Arlington County, where she served as Press Chair for the Arlington County Democratic Committee and sat on the Criminal Justice Committee of the county’s NAACP.
In January 2019, Dehghani-Tafti launched a campaign to run for Commonwealth’s Attorney (C.A.) of Arlington County and Falls Church, Virginia. “If elected,” she pledged, “I will promote justice and safety for all, serve the community equitably, and promote and defend progressive values within our legal system. My priority issues include cash bail reform, decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, resolving disciplinary problems in schools not our courts, and ensuring people who struggle with mental illness and substance abuse, receive needed community assistance, not a jail sentence.”
In February 2019, Dehghani-Tafti gave an extended interview in which she addressed some of the aforementioned issues along with a number of others. Some examples:
- Mass Incarceration & Its Causes: “I think the drivers of mass incarceration are … a combination of criminalizing nuisance behavior, really intensive focus on drug prosecution, a very low felony larceny threshold…, and pretty harsh sentences.”
- Focusing on the Root Causes of Crime: “The thing that drove me to try to effect change from the inside is the parable where the villagers start to see babies coming down the river, and they’re plucking the babies out of the river, and then one person starts walking upstream, and everybody says why are you walking upstream, help us get the babies out of river, and the individual says, ‘Well, I’m going to see who is throwing them in.’”
- Exonerating the Wrongly Convicted: “What I do now [at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project] is I look at cases, and we investigate sometimes 10, 20, 30, 40 year-old cases, and in order to prove somebody innocent what you really need to do is reinvestigate the case from scratch … I am very interested in creating a type of Conviction Integrity Unit to review the accuracy of convictions in cases of folks who are claiming innocence.”
- Changing the Rules for Open-File Discovery: “The commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington … does not give documents to the defense. What they do is that they permit defense attorneys to go into the commonwealth’s attorney’s office where they have to sign an affidavit promising that they will not photograph, sign or copy documents in any way. They’re permitted to take notes of whatever files the commonwealth’s attorney gives them. That’s what passes here for open-file discovery. I would give electronic copies of whatever I am permitted to give by law.”
- Refusing to Prosecute Certain Categories of Crimes: “At the moment, I would not prosecute simple possession of marijuana cases. I would have to look and think about what other specific crimes that I would decline to prosecute. But simple marijuana possession is at the top of that list, because I think largely it’s a crime that doesn’t have any victims …”
- Prescribing Treatment Rather Than Punishment for Drug Offenses: “I would want to create more robust drug treatment programs, divert more cases into drug treatment programs, and really start treating addiction as a medical problem.”
- Opposition to Capital Punishment: “I would not seek the death penalty. There have been 164 exonerations of people on death row in the United States since 1972.… It’s the one punishment that you can’t walk back from once it’s been imposed. And we know from data that it’s imposed disproportionately on people of color.”
- Opposition to Cash Bail for Nonviolent Crimes: “I favor ending the use of cash bail for low-level charges and potentially using validated risk assessment tools for purposes of determining level of services. The presumption should be that a person should be released, unless the individual is dangerous.”
- Protecting Illegal Aliens from Immigration Authorities: “If you are plea bargaining and you’re the prosecutor, one of the considerations that you should be thinking about is how do the charges affect the immigration status of this person. Are you going to take this person away from their family and put the family in economic distress and that sort of thing when it’s not necessary?”
- The Age at Which It Should Be Permissible to Try a Young Defendant As an Adult: “I don’t think it should be an option before somebody is 16, or even at 16. Brain science tells us that people’s brains are not developed [until they are] into their early 20s.”
- Voting Rights for Convicted Felons: “I don’t think people [convicted of felonies and incarcerated for them] should be stripped of their right to vote. I know that these disenfranchisement laws were about making sure that black people would not be able to vote, and I think that we need to pull ourselves away from that history. I think without a doubt, if somebody has served their time, they should have their civil rights returned to them.”
- Voting Rights for Prisoners: “I would support folks who are incarcerated voting as well. If you’re going to be counted in the census, and you’re a citizen, I think you should be allowed to vote. … The only thing the policy [of denying prisoner voting rights] accomplishes is to impose another form of punishment but, in the final analysis, if what we are interested in is safety and justice, it’s hard to make a rational argument that either of these things are served by denying prisoners the right to vote. And we should never forget that these laws are the vestiges of Jim Crow.”
During the 2019 election cycle as a whole, Dehghani-Tafti raised a total of approximately $850,000 for her C.A. campaign. By far her most significant support came from the leftist multibillionaire George Soros, who supplied her campaign with some $621,145 through his Justice and Public Safety PAC (JPS-PAC). Created explicitly to help elect radical prosecutors in the Commonwealth of Virginia, JPS-PAC was one of numerous similarly named political action committees that Soros established to promote the election of leftwing prosecutors in states across America.
Other notable supporters of Dehghani-Tafti’s bid for C.A. included Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Atima Omara, former Board of Directors chair of the Planned Parenthood Metro Washington Action Fund. Dehghani-Tafti also received endorsements from leftist organizations such as Real Justice, the Arlington branch of Indivisible, CASA in Action, New Virginia Majority, Our Revolution of Northern Virginia, NIAC Action, and the Service Employees International Union.
In the Democratic primary election of June 11, 2019, Dehghani-Tafti won the party’s nomination over Arlington County’s incumbent C.A., Theo Stamos, by a margin of 52% to 48%. Without any official Republican or Independent challenger slated to participate in the upcoming general election, Dehghani-Tafti essentially secured the C.A. position with her victory in the primary.
Days before the November 2019 general election, Dehghani-Tafti published in a local online news outlet a summary of her proposed Commonwealth’s Attorney platform, which included the following statements:
- “Prosecutors should focus on serious crimes that threaten public safety and community well-being, including sexual assault, elderly abuse, and wage theft.”
- “Prosecutors should support programs that help victims recover from the trauma of crime and restorative justice programs that help reduce crime. ”
- “The default approach for children who make mistakes should be diversion and education [rather than incarceration].”
- “People should not be in jail because they are too poor to afford bail.”
- “Whenever possible, people with disabilities, mental illness, or those suffering from addiction should be offered treatment rather than incarceration.”
- “It is wrong to continue to saddle people with a criminal record for simple marijuana possession when it has life-long consequences on employment, education, and housing.”
- “No criminal legal system can achieve justice if it tolerates racial and class disparities.”
- “People who have served their time should be reintegrated into society as returning citizens with voting rights.”
- “The death penalty has no place in a civilized society.”
Further amplifying her views on these and other key matters, Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign website laid out the details of her positions on a wide array of key issues:
- Work to Eliminate Cash Bail: “People should not be kept in jail simply because they are poor. Cash bail allows the wealthy to buy their way out of jail while the poor remain detained, losing their family, job, housing, and continuity of medical treatment while they are in jail…. It compromises public safety because imprisoning a person pre-trial simply because they cannot afford to pay bail increases the likelihood that they will reoffend once they are released.… Suspects who are a serious flight risk or danger to the community will be held regardless of their ability to pay, and those charged with nonviolent offenses will be released with proven alternatives to cash bail such as validated risk assessment tools, monitoring, and regular check-ins.”
- Increase Transparency and Accountability: “African-Americans make up less than 9% of Arlington County’s population, but about 66% of the population in the Arlington County jail, despite evidence that populations commit crimes at similar rates. This disproportionate incarceration is unacceptable.”
- Expand and Implement Effective Diversion Programs: “Parisa will work to expand and implement effective diversion programs that prioritize treatment over jail for people with mental health and substance abuse challenges, kids, and people with special needs…. She will also stop using interdiction, a civil process used by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to label people ‘habitual drunkards’ and place them in jail for up to a year if they are found close to alcohol. [Interdiction] targets people who are homeless and struggling with substance abuse and often mental illness, as well…. Students with disabilities and students of color are disproportionately suspended and referred to the criminal justice system. Parisa is committed to ending the school-to-prison pipeline by helping our children with effective diversion, treatment, and services instead of prosecuting them.”
- Stop Prosecuting Simple Marijuana Possession: “African-Americans are at least 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that studies show that different racial groups use marijuana at about the same rates…. Parisa will not prosecute simple possession of marijuana and [will] support [its] decriminalization and legalization, with appropriate government regulation.”
- Eliminate Civil Asset Forfeiture without a Conviction: “Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize people’s cash and possessions without compensation regardless of whether the owner has been convicted or even charged with a crime. The current practice in Arlington and the City of Falls Church is that people can be subject to forfeiture when they are merely charged with – not convicted of – a crime. These assets are not returned, even if the owner is acquitted. … Parisa will stop forfeiture until after a person is found guilty.”
- Never Seek the Death Penalty: “The death penalty is the single punishment for which there is no remedy if a mistake has been made. It is inhumane, expensive, and racially-biased. Too many people sentenced to death have been found innocent and exonerated…. Parisa will never seek a death sentence.
- Work to Raise the Felony Larceny Threshold: “Virginia’s felony larceny threshold is still one of the lowest in the country—just stealing a phone can leave a person with a permanent felony record that will prevent them from getting jobs, voting, and serving on a jury. Studies have shown that a lower threshold does not even decrease the rate of theft or the average value of objects stolen. Parisa supports increasing the larceny threshold and will use her discretion as Commonwealth’s Attorney to make sure that people are not unduly punished for small thefts.”
- Assist Re-Entry to Reduce Recidivism: “One of the main functions of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. Those who have paid their debt to society should not be treated like second-class citizens. In Virginia, anyone convicted of a felony loses their right to vote. … Parisa will support efforts to restore voting rights and to expunge records in appropriate cases so returning citizens are actively integrated into society.”
- Create a Conviction Integrity Unit: “Wrongful convictions are one of our system’s greatest injustices…. Parisa will work ensure innocent people are not jailed or imprisoned with the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit to review innocence claims.”
Dehghani-Tafti officially won the general election for Commonwealth’s Attorney on November 5, 2019, capturing roughly 90% of the vote. She was sworn into office in December 2019, and her four-year term officially started on January 1, 2020.
In a March 2020 interview with Arlington Magazine, Dehghani-Tafti said the following about the concept of “restorative justice”: “It’s a passion project of mine. Rather than asking who broke the law and how do we punish them, restorative justice talks about who was harmed, what do they need to heal and whose responsibility it is to help them. It asks the person who did the harm to search for change and transforms them into someone who doesn’t do it again. It focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment.”
In October 2020, Dehghani-Tafti joined dozens of fellow Democrat prosecutors in signing a joint statement pledging that they would not enforce any laws criminalizing abortion. “It is imperative that we use our discretion to decline to prosecute personal healthcare choices criminalized under such laws,” said the statement. Among the other signers were: Xavier Becerra, Diana Becton, Buta Biberaj, Chesa Boudin, David Clegg, John Creuzot, Steve Descano, Keith Ellison, Lawrence Krasner, Marilyn Mosby, Jody Owens, Rachael Rollins, and Raúl Torrez.
On one occasion in November 2020, Dehghani-Tafti, who has accused judges of “judicial activism” when they have opposed her decisions to not enforce official state laws, refused to prosecute a man who had feloniously attempted to transport 50 pounds of marijuana through the Reagan National Airport in Arlington. She sought instead to merely impose a penalty of probation with a possibility of having the felony charges dismissed.
According to the Arlington County Police Department’s official 2020 Annual Report, the incidence of various types of crimes increased in the county during Dehghani-Tafti’s initial year as Commonwealth’s Attorney. For example, crimes against persons – a category that included offenses like abduction, assault, and murder – rose from 1,234 in 2019 to 1,348 in 2020, a 9.2% uptick. Aggravated assaults in particular increased by 40%, from 150 to 210 during that same period. Moreover, property damage and vandalism offenses rose by 12.7%, while motor vehicle thefts increased by 42.3%.
Dehghani-Tafti’s refusal to enforce certain Virginia state laws – coupled with the aforementioned increase in crimes throughout Arlington County – prompted the 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization Virginians for Safe Communities to initiate a recall petition aiming to remove her from office in 2021. “We are launching this campaign to hold accountable the prosecutors who have taken office under a writ of reform but have gone too far,” said VSC board member Sean Kennedy. “They are continuing to flout the rule of law, failing to enforce the law and are endangering our families and communities.”
Dehghani-Tafti attempted to delegitimize the recall effort as one that was based on “lies being pushed by the same Trump, dark-money supported political operatives and right-wing groups that have sought to intimidate elected school boards all over Northern Virginia for simply doing their jobs.” “It’s part of a broader scheme nationwide where they abuse outdated recall laws because they can’t win at the ballot box,” she added. Condemning the “non-democratic recall” as “a far-right attempt to overturn a valid election,” a defiant Dehghani-Tafti also wrote in an email: “They couldn’t (and can’t) win at the ballot box so are trying to impose their own will through a political end run around the democratic process. I’m doing exactly what I promised my community I would do — what I was elected to do — and doing it well: making the system more fair, more responsive, and more rehabilitative, while keeping us safe.”