The race to replace Prince William County’s outgoing Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert is beginning to take shape with both candidates -- Republican Mike May and Democrat Amy Ashworth – saying they support some criminal justice reforms but disagree about how they should be implemented.
Ashworth, a former prosecutor who worked for the Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney's office for 11 years, said she plans to directly enact some policy reforms at the local level if elected. She said she’ll limit the use of cash bonds and put an end to the prosecution of non-violent, low-level drug possession of marijuana in most cases.
“I believe it violates a prosecutor’s oath to say that they will not uphold the law,” Ashworth said in an email. “I also believe many low-level drug offenses can be diverted from the criminal justice system so that the act does not result in a conviction for the defendant and instead uses dispositional alternatives to focus on substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation.”
May, an attorney who served on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors from 2007 to 2015, said those reforms are best handled by state legislators rather than local prosecutors. He pushed back against Ashworth’s proposal to stop prosecuting low-level possession of drugs like marijuana.
“I’m interested in enforcing the law, she seems to be interested in picking and choosing what laws she wants to enforce. I believe the position of the commonwealth’s attorney is to enforce the laws that the legislature makes,” May said.
Republicans in the General Assembly have routinely blocked efforts to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia. A majority-Republican House subcommittee killed all proposed marijuana legislation in 2019.
Ashworth isn’t the first prosecutor in Virginia to advance the idea of marijuana decriminalization at the local level. Commonwealth’s attorneys in Norfolk and Portsmouth have taken similar actions to dismiss misdemeanor marijuana possessions in their jurisdictions this year with varied results.
In Norfolk, local judges blocked the city’s chief prosecutor Greg Underwood from dismissing all misdemeanor marijuana possession charges in a conflict that ended up in the Virginia State Supreme Court. A three-judge panel ruled the local judges had not exceeded their authority by refusing to dismiss the cases.
In Portsmouth, Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales received the approval of local judges ahead of time, effectively decriminalizing misdemeanor possession of the drug in the city.
High-ranking politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for the decriminalization of marijuana. In June, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) issued a statement supporting the decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana in Virginia citing the high cost of enforcement and the unequal impact of marijuana criminalization on African Americans.
“The human and social costs are enormous, in addition to the millions of dollars it costs Virginia taxpayers. And the negative consequences of the current approach fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color,” Herring said.
In Prince William County, African Americans represent 22 percent of the county’s total population but made up 40 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in 2018, according to records collected from the state’s online court information system by VirginiaCourtData.org.
Both Ashworth, May back limits on cash bail
Ashworth and May appear to agree more closely on the issue of limiting the use of cash bond -- money judges and prosecutors typically require defendants to pay to be released from jail until their trial date. Critics of the system say cash bail unfairly impacts poor people and people of color.
Ashworth said she would limit the use of cash bond in Prince William County in favor of other methods of supervision for individuals considered a flight risk.
“Cash bonds put many families in extreme financial jeopardy and disproportionately harm people and communities of color,” Ashworth said.
If implemented, Prince William County would join Charlottesville, Richmond, Alexandria and Chesterfield counties as the only localities in Virginia to take substantial measures to limit the use of cash bail.
May and Ashworth both say they agree the current system needs to be improved, but May says it will take more than the efforts of local prosecutors to fix it.
“Whenever possible we should limit the use of cash bail, but ultimately if we’re going to change the cash bail system I think we need to have some legislative changes as opposed to local policy changes,” May said.
State Del. Jennifer Carrol Foy, D-2nd, introduced a bill in January that would have required the state Department of Criminal Justice Services to collect data on bail determinations and called for the general presumption of pretrial release in place of cash bail in Virginia. The measure was killed in a subcommittee.
The race for Prince William County’s top prosecutor is one of three high-profile commonwealth’s attorney elections in Northern Virginia this November that have put criminal justice reform in the spotlight.
In both Arlington and Fairfax counties, progressive Democrats beat incumbents in the June Democratic primary. In Arlington, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti defeated incumbent Theo Stamos, while progressive Democrat Steve Descano defeated incumbent Raymond F. Morrogh in Fairfax County.
Both Dehghani-Tafti and Descano campaigned on similar issues of criminal justice reform that included decriminalizing marijuana possession, limiting cash bail and addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Prince William’s current Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, a Democrat who has served the county in the position since 1968, has been less friendly toward such reforms. Ebert has sent more criminals to death row than any other prosecutor in Virginia. He announced his retirement earlier this year.
This is May’s second time running for the position. He challenged Ebert in 2015 and lost by 3 points.
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“I believe it violates a prosecutor’s oath to say that they will not uphold the law,” Ashworth said. “I also believe many low-level drug offenses can be diverted from the criminal justice system so that the act does not result in a conviction for the defendant, and instead uses dispositional alternatives to focus on substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation.”