CA Report Card: Loudoun County
In a community as politically diverse as Loudoun County, where campaigns have become so heated and partisan, the bipartisan nature of criminal justice reform is especially important to emphasize. The truth is, unlike many elected offices, the fact that a Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate has an (R) or a (D) next to their name says very little about their values or policies. In fact, Virginia prosecutors don’t hide this fact, describing their affiliation as with neither Democrats nor Republicans, but rather “The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Party.”
This may account for why Virginia prosecutors, whether running as Republicans or Democrats, have for decades sung essentially the same tune: one that is thoughtlessly punitive, seemingly viewing every new power granted as a mandate to exploit it. Commonwealth’s Attorneys—Virginia’s term for its local, elected chief prosecutors—are the most powerful individuals in any local criminal justice system. With so much power to overcharge offenses and threaten severe punishment (e.g. mandatory minimums), they can make their cities and counties as unforgiving as they want, and their local legal system as unwieldy and intrusive as they want—or they can use their discretion to promote equal justice, rehabilitation, decrease the size of government, and safeguard individual liberty against the power of the executive branch.
Unfortunately, prosecutors in Loudoun County have long opted for the former approach. In fact, outgoing elected Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman (R) made it a point to ensure that criminal justice reform did not gain footing in Loudoun County. Prior to his last election, in a dramatic break with bipartisan attitudes to the contrary, Plowman promised to increase felony prosecutions and eliminate “favorable” plea deals; two promises he kept by maintaining a top-down management structure emphasizing aggressive prosecution of nearly all offenses (misdemeanors or felonies). Line prosecutors have virtually no discretion to offer leniency, and are expected to maximize their overwhelming leverage to coerce guilty pleas; a phenomenon known as “The Trial Penalty.”
Plowman’s long-time Chief Deputy, Nicole Wittmann (R), is running on the office’s record under Plowman’s leadership. This should come as no surprise, since Wittmann is herself known for an aggressive, unrelenting approach to prosecuting cases. As the Washington Post noted, should Wittmann be elected, Loudoun voters can safely expect more of the same: a local legal system tethered to the justice policies of decades’ past.
Her opponent, Buta Biberaj (D), who received the Post’s endorsement, is a long-time local defense attorney based out of Leesburg, who for the past 11 years has served as a substitute judge in the Loudoun County courthouse. Biberaj has promised to modernize the Loudoun County prosecutor’s office to reflect changing attitudes regarding over-incarceration, marijuana prohibition, racial disparities, and the school-to-prison pipeline, among other issues—albeit perhaps not to the same degree as reform candidates in Fairfax and Arlington. She is certainly more moderate than her compatriots to the east, but that may indeed better reflect her prospective constituency. As noted, criminal justice reform is one of the few remaining bipartisan issues in American politics, and in a politically-diverse community Biberaj seems to be charting a bipartisan path for her reform agenda.