CA Report Card: Fairfax County
No one knows the Fairfax County justice system better than the attorneys who practice law there. CA Difference asked local attorneys to evaluate their own criminal courts and the policies and practices of their local elected prosecutors, using the 21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor as their guide. Their observations and assessments can be found here.
Fairfax County’s courthouse suffers from many of the same problems endemic to all American systems of justice. Although only 10% of the county is black, black people make up 40% of the jail population. Fairfax County is committed to the war on drugs, actively prosecuting marijuana possession, including prosecution possession of marijuana extracts (e.g. hash oil) as a felony. It seeks the death penalty, including in cases where it would seem prudent not to.
Overall, however, prosecutorial practices in Fairfax County are a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is possible for defendants to obtain fair results in certain types of cases: non-violent felonies, for example. Fairfax prosecutors are also receptive to treating indigency and immigration consequences as factors warranting leniency.
On the other hand, Fairfax prosecutors are more than willing to use their considerable leverage to coerce guilty pleas in many cases. The are known to overcharge, stack charges, and threaten “jury minimums” in hopes that the risk of trial will appear too great to a defendant (learn more about The Trial Penalty). In many cases, this approach is unrelenting, and seems to ignore mitigating factors. Fairfax has also been slow to embrace diversion as an alternative, and where diversion has been implemented, Fairfax has been slow to implement evidence-informed practices.
In all, although the Fairfax courthouse can often function well, the Commonwealth's Attorney remains several steps behind the bench and the defense bar when it comes to taking a modern approach to criminal justice. Many reforms are still needed.