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State Lawmakers Could Weigh How Much Power Prosecutors Have Next Month

As lawmakers consider criminal justice reform during the special session next month, not all the changes will be directed at police. Some important changes may also be on the horizon for the courts.

This last election cycle, several progressive prosecutors won office by making a series of campaign promises: ending the cash bail system, stopping marijuana prosecutions and eliminating the death penalty. But then when they took office, sometimes judges stood in the way of change.

Here’s Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.

“We’ve seen it when commonwealth’s attorneys try to handle misdemeanor marijuana cases in the past," he explains. "We’ve seen it when we have prosecutors who want to take a more rehabilitative approach. And we’ve seen it every time we’ve tried to take a step to really get at the root of systemic problems.”

Now Descano and several of his colleagues have formed the Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, and they’re pressing lawmakers to clarify exactly what kind discretion prosecutors have.

Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor says lawmakers can clear up confusion when prosecutors want to drop charges but judges push back.

“And so now that’s a question about the judiciary," says Taylor. "Are they perhaps stepping outside their role? Are they now trying to dictate how executive function is going to be implemented?”

The Progressive Prosecutors for Justice will be pressing for several other criminal justice reform efforts during the special session, including allowing prosecutors to have access to disciplinary records of police officers, requiring all warrants to be served during the daytime and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.