A new data dashboard shows Fairfax County prosecutors are sometimes asking for more detainments of defendants than judges.
The Office of the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney (OCA) released a dashboard in October with data comparing how often and under what circumstances prosecutors are asking for pre-trial detainment and release to a judge’s recommendations.
“We’re trying to become a more data-driven office,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano told FFXnow. “We’re using this information that we’re collecting here for internal improvements, internal trainings, restructurings, and changing of our processes.”
He acknowledged that too often decisions in the justice system lack transparency and are done without the public’s knowledge.
“We want to let the community know what is going on in their justice system,” he said. “I think this system is a black box to many people. We want to change that.”
Courts and prosecutors diverge on when to detain defendants
The dashboard only covers bond review hearings, where a county prosecutor makes a recommendation to a judge that a defendant either be detained or released before their trial.
Descano said that involves “a small percentage of our cases,” though he was unable to provide the exact percentage compared to the total number of cases handled by the county.
The dashboard also only has data from a six-month period between Jan. 1, 2022 and June 30, 2022.
According to the provided data, decisions by the OCA don’t always neatly line up with the self-described “progressive” prosecutor reputation that Descano ran on in 2019, nor do they clearly affirm detractors’ perception of the office as “soft on crime.”
While prosecutors and courts generally align on non-violent misdemeanors and felonies, the OCA recommended detainment for violent felonies 20% more often than the courts, including cases involving cash bail. Descano called that the number one “disagreement” between his office and judges.
As the dashboard notes, the OCA and courts don’t always agree on when a perpetrator is a “danger to family or household member.” Descano said those disagreements generally relate to domestic violence cases, particularly those involving strangulation.
“We take those really seriously because data has shown that if an intimate partner strangles somebody, they’re seven times more likely to actually murder them,” Descano said.
The OCA also recommended detentions for sex offenses at higher rates than the courts. For felonies, it asked for detainment 89% of the time, while the judges recommended it 52% of the time. For misdemeanors, OCA asked for detainment 58% of the time, with judges agreeing in only 25% of cases.
“It shows me that some judges may not see the same dangerousness to those types of crimes that we do or may value it differently,” Descano said. “We’re not putting this out data to try to slam judges or anything. If anything, it shows [how] different actors in the system view different types of accusations.” Read More
Local police officers are using at hand-held remote device to restrain individuals from a distance of up to 25 feet.
The Fairfax County Police Department announced yesterday (Wednesday) that it is piloting the BolaWrap, which releases an 8-foot-wide tether to entangle uncooperative suspects or individuals experiencing a mental health crisis from a distance.
The device works best at a distance of between 10 and 25 feet, according to the police department, which says it is intended for situations involving individuals displaying “passive or active resistance.” The new tool is excepted to help take an individual into custody before an incident escalates.
In the news release, Major Brooke Wright, director of the county’s Criminal Justice Academy, said BolaWraps add another tool to the police department’s toolbox for taking individuals into custody.
“FCPD continues to seek the latest advancements in our profession to prepare our officers for situations they encounter,” Wright said. “Every day officers utilize verbal skills and de-escalation tactics to resolve situations peacefully. The Bolawrap device provides another potential tool for officers to safely take someone into custody when individuals present harm to themselves or others. We look forward to continuing this pilot and identifying other ways to aid our officers, keeping them and the community safe.”
Police Chief Kevin Davis told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this spring that the department had started deploying Bolawraps in April.
The department now has 30 BolaWraps throughout its district stations and its crisis intervention team. The pilot program will end in April of next year and carries a cost of $46,000, the FCPD said.
All officers using the devices will receive training from the Criminal Justice Academy before using the devices, the department says.
WRAP, the company behind BolaWrap, touts the device as effective at de-escalating situations that are “usually chaotic.”
“Instead of waiting for an encounter to unfold and escalate, the use of the BolaWrap can effectuate an arrest quickly, safely and humanely — ending the situation and facilitating a positive outcome that doesn’t result in injury or use of force,” the company’s website states.
The company suggests using the devices for emotionally disturbed individuals, passively resistant subject, mentally ill individuals, persons in crisis and people under the influence of alcohol and drugs, among other scenarios.
More than 500 police agencies across the country use the devices.
While Fairfax County regularly makes headlines for its diversion initiatives and other criminal justice reform efforts, an imbalance in funding for prosecutors and defense attorneys remains unaddressed, the local public defender’s office says.
Dawn Butorac, the county’s chief public defender, said her office’s 25 attorney positions are around half the number of lawyers that Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano’s office has, and that gap is only going to worsen if a proposed county budget is adopted without changes this May.
“There are significant disparities between the salaries of an attorney at the same levels in each of our offices,” she said during a budget hearing last Thursday (April 14) before the Board of Supervisors. “It creates an unequal and unfair criminal legal system.”
Butorac said Descano makes over $50,000 more per year than she does.
“We’re asking the board for help so that we can continue to provide the level of service and representation that every person in Fairfax County deserves, regardless of their income,” Andy Elders, deputy public defender, said during another budget hearing, noting that his office is down two attorneys.
According to budget materials for the upcoming fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1, the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney will have nearly $9 million in expeditures, though actual county spending would be around $6.7 million since the office gets about $2.2 million in supplements from the state.
The advertised budget provides six new positions, including three attorneys, for a total of 84 full-time staffers, 54 of them prosecutors.
Butorac told FFXnow by email that her budget request is for approximately $825,000 in total and that her office currently gets about $525,000 from the county.
State funding also contributes to compensation. Virginia Indigent Defense Commission Executive Director David Johnson said the Fairfax County Public Defenders’ Office received $3.9 million in state funding during the past budget year.
“We can’t take shortcuts to justice, and to do that you have to invest,” Descano said in a statement when asked about the pay between offices. “I am grateful to the Board of Supervisors for its commitment to that investment in the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office as well as the Public Defender’s Office. I look forward to working further with the Board of Supervisors and county leaders to continue supporting the entire criminal justice system in Fairfax County.”
Descano’s office acknowledged the disparity in funding but also said the Board of Supervisors chairman’s office is in a better position to comment, since the board determines the budget.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay argued in a statement to FFXnow that Virginia needs to take more responsibility for funding court-related agencies, including the public defender’s office, whose staff are technically state employees.
Fairfax County provides nearly $96 million in personnel and salary supplements for staff in the court system, including attorneys, clerks, district court employees, and probation office employees, according to McKay, who said that level of funding is “unsustainable.”
“My colleagues and I on the Board have been in constant communication with the Public Defender, as well as the General Assembly, and we’ll continue to work alongside both moving forward to ensure funding for that office and the others mentioned above,” McKay said by email. “At a time like this, when the state has a gigantic, unprecedented budget surplus, it is way past time for it to pay its own bills.”
However, Elders suggested Fairfax County’s supplements for the public defender’s office have fallen behind other jurisdictions in Virginia. Experienced Fairfax County staff have left for Arlington and Prince William counties and Richmond, according to Elders.
“Our clients need all the help they can get,” he said. “We work nights. We work weekends. And we can’t keep up.”
Arrests in Fairfax and Arlington Counties Stir Debate over Bail Reform — “The man who was arrested on Sunday for robbery and carjacking after an inter-jurisdiction car chase on I-395 was awaiting trial in Fairfax County for stealing a car, court records show…Randall Mason, the president of the Arlington Coalition of Police, said Fairfax County’s release of the alleged carjacker put officers, the driver and the public at risk of injury.” [ARLnow]
Fairfax Real Estate Listing Goes Viral — “The $800,000 listing, a five-bedroom, 3.5-bath, single-family home, is only accepting all-cash offers despite needing multiple repairs and coming with roommates who aren’t paying rent and don’t have a lease. Oh, and potential buyers can’t see the lower level.” [Axios]
Herndon MS Students Enjoy Recess — Herndon Middle School students support the introduction of recess, calling it a “brain break.” Fairfax County middle schools started piloting recess periods this school year, and the school board is expected to make the practice permanent with a vote tomorrow (Thursday). [NBC4]
Reston Association Election Results Announced — The Reston Association Board of Directors announced the results of its latest election yesterday (Tuesday) at an Annual Members’ Meeting. The new directors are Glenn Small (At-Large), Irwin Flashman (Lake Anne/Tall Oaks District), and Laurie Dodd (North Point District). [RA]
Vienna Advances More Sidewalk Projects — “The Town of Vienna will move forward with engineering design of sidewalks on more streets as part of the Maud Robinson Trust…An estimated 3.3 miles of sidewalk can be added through the trust, according to the town.” [Patch]
Longtime Annandale Shoe Business for Sale — “Express Shoe Repair, at 7048 Columbia Pike, is for sale…Anna Koundakjian and her husband founded Express Shoe Repair in 1985, five years after they immigrated to the U.S. from an Armenian enclave in Lebanon. They are ready to retire, and Anna plans to start a new hobby — quilting.” [Annandale Today]
Vienna Little League to Celebrate Opening Day — “For the first time in a couple of years, Vienna Little League will hold an opening-day ceremony, scheduled for Saturday morning April 16 at 9 a.m. at the league’s Yeonas Park complex The ceremony has not been held the last couple of years at the regular time because of the pandemic.” [Sun Gazette]
TV Actor to Help Dedicate Reston Garden — Actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. will visit Reston Community Center on May 4 to raise awareness about environmental sustainability. He will join officials at 5 p.m. for the dedication of a new pollinator garden by Hunters Woods Village Center before giving a talk on CenterStage at 8 p.m. [RCC]
It’s Wednesday — Mostly cloudy throughout the day. High of 78 and low of 59. Sunrise at 6:36 am and sunset at 7:45 pm. [Weather.gov]
Annandale Chick-fil-A Opens Today — “Chick-fil-A will open Thursday, April 7, at 7130 Little River Turnpike, Annandale…To celebrate the grand opening, the restaurant will surprise ‘100 local heroes making an impact in Annandale with free Chick-fil-A for a year.'” [Annandale Today]
Starkist HQ in Reston Now Open — Relocating from Pittsburgh, the tuna manufacturer opened its new corporate and administrative headquarters at 1875 Explorer Street in Reston Town Center on Tuesday (April 5). The office can accommodate more than 70 employees, and the company is marking its arrival with a community distribution event for the Reston-based nonprofit Feed the Children. [Starkist]
Commonwealth’s Attorney Expands Diversion for Non-Violent Crimes — “Under the program, called Taking Root, Fairfax prosecutors and defense attorneys can jointly recommend to judges that certain people accused of crimes be assigned to intensive programming instead of being prosecuted…The new program expands on existing diversion programs in Fairfax that have narrower eligibility requirements.” [DCist]
Masks No Longer Required at GMU — “In a message to the school community posted Tuesday, university president Gregory Washington announced GMU had switched to a mask-optional policy on all its campuses. He said the decision reflected low transmission and positivity rates in Fairfax County and nearby communities.” [WTOP]
Great Falls Group Has Ideas for Beltway Bridge Design — “When the construction dust settles, the orange cones are gone and work crews have relocated to snarl traffic elsewhere after completion of the 495 NEXT Project, the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) hopes an extra-nice-looking bridge will take Georgetown Pike over the Capital Beltway.” [Sun Gazette]
Vienna Could Get Specialized License Plate — The Town of Vienna plans to introduce a town-themed license plate after the Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved a bill from Del. Mark Keam letting localities cover the fees for the first 350 prepaid orders required by state law. The law takes effect on July 1, and the town council will then move to decide on a design. [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]
Squirrels Trigger Car’s “Check Engine” Light in Franconia — “Craftsman Auto Care — Alexandria, an auto repair shop at the Festival at Manchester Lakes shopping center, found three baby squirrels sleeping under the hood of a customer’s vehicle…As for the check engine light, it turned out that the babies’ mother squirrel had chewed through wiring in the vehicle.” [Patch]
It’s Thursday — Rain until evening. High of 55 and low of 46. Sunrise at 6:45 am and sunset at 7:39 pm. [Weather.gov]
FCPD Officer Found Not Guilty in Taser Incident — “A jury found a Fairfax County, Virginia, police officer not guilty of using excessive force against a man in a June 2020 incident caught on body camera. The officer, Tyler Timberlake, who is white, had faced three misdemeanor assault and battery charges for tasering Lamonta Gladney, who is Black.” [NBC4]
Community Members Rally in Support of FCPS Librarians — “Nearly 70 people participated in a rally to support school librarians March 24 before a school board meeting at Luther Jackson Middle School. At the meeting, several people attacked librarians for supporting LGBTQ students’ rights.” [Annandale Today]
Fairfax County Plea Deal for Shootings Suspect Scrutinized — Recently arrested for allegedly shooting five homeless people, Gerald Brevard III previously faced charges in Fairfax County for assaulting a hotel worker and breaking into an apartment. Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares argues that county prosecutors’ plea deal was too lenient, while Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano says weaknesses in the case meant it was the ‘best outcome’ his office could’ve gotten. [The Washington Post]
Armed Carjacking Reported in Mount Vernon — “Detectives on scene of armed carjacking in 3700 blk of Rolling Hills Ave. 4 suspects described as black men 18-20 yo in dark clothing driving bro Nissan Altima. Suspects displayed firearm, assaulted the victim & took a 2017 gray Toyota Corolla. Call 911 w/info.” [FCPD/Twitter]
Capitals Star Relocates Within McLean — “Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie…and his wife Lauren paid $7.5 million earlier this month for a newly constructed 9,890-square-foot home on Dogue Hill Lane, according to public records. The five-bedroom, eight-bath home is within the exclusive Langley Farms community.” [Washington Business Journal]
Crumbl Cookies to Open Reston Store Friday — “To celebrate the April 1 grand opening of [its] new location in Reston, Crumbl Cookies will be giving away a year’s worth of free cookies to one lucky person.” [Patch]
Tysons Corner Center Announces Spring Events — “Easter festivities have begun as April approaches. Families can get the traditional Easter Bunny photos, and there’s even an adults-only egg hunt…From May to September, shoppers can find events like monthly outdoor movies, game night tournaments, live music and more.” [Patch]
Fire and Rescue Department Wins Charity Hockey Game — “A hard fought 6-2 victory for #FCFRD @FairfaxCountyPD Chief Davis will look good in an FCFRD hockey jersey! Great game for great causes! Fantastic crowd! In the end, #FCPD and FCFRD remain one public safety team!” [FCFRD/Twitter]
It’s Monday — Mostly cloudy throughout the day. High of 32 and low of 23. Sunrise at 7:01 a.m. and sunset at 7:30 p.m. [Weather.gov]
A 24-year-old man is expected to spend at least 15 years in prison for engaging in sexually explicit discussions with at least six children and trying to get several of them to send explicit pictures of themselves, prosecutors say.
Brian Scott McGalem of Fairfax agreed to a plea deal on March 11 admitting guilt to charges of attempted production of child pornography and possession of child porn.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, he sent sexually explicit content of himself to multiple minors, and his electronic devices contained images and videos of child sex abuse.
“At least three of the minor victims were under the age of 12 at the time of the offense,” the Justice Department said in a news release. “During these discussions, which took place on several social media platforms under the monikers ‘Random Hipster#2429’ and ‘Sircoolbeans,’ McGalem attempted to groom and entice the minors to record themselves engaging in sexually explicit activity.”
For one victim, contacted through the gaming console PlayStation and messaging platform Discord, McGalem tried to get the 9-year-old boy to send sexually explicit images of himself and had sexual conversations with him, according to a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security’s Child Exploitation Unit in Reston.
McGalem eventually mailed a gaming headset to the boy’s home in Frederick County, Maryland. His mother, who was unfamiliar with the sender’s name on the FedEx package, then found out about the chats and contacted the sheriff’s office, according to the agent’s affidavit.
“The chats included Random Hipster#2429 stating he had anal sex with an eleven-year-old boy,” the affidavit said.
McGalem also asked the 9-year-old in online chats if he was circumcised, said he wanted to date the boy, and offered to invite him to a party, the special agent stated.
Under the plea deal, McGalem will have to register as a sex offender and pay victims $3,000 or more in restitution. He could also face up to a $250,000 fine and other costs.
He’s scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 17. Officials said he faces at least 15 years in prison as a mandatory minimum.
Fairfax County’s approach to criminal justice is quite different from when public defender Bryan Kennedy started his job here a decade ago.
In 2010, the county housed 1,207 people in its jail. That population has been nearly halved, down to 667 people in 2020, according to 2020 Census data compiled by The Marshall Project.
Going back further, the county’s inmate population was 3,749 people in 2000. But the changes from 2000-2010 involved the 2001 closure of the Lorton Reformatory, which housed over 2,800 people as of Dec. 31, 1999 and had its inmates moved to other facilities across Virginia and the federal prison system.
More recently, policy and cultural changes have dramatically altered the county’s judicial system, according to Kennedy, who also belongs to the criminal justice reform group Justice Forward Virginia.
“Ten years ago judges sentenced people to jail much more frequently on low level charges (both misdemeanors and felonies), including misdemeanors like possession of marijuana and driving on a suspended license,” Kennedy said in an email. “People were also held pretrial and held on secured bonds (cash bonds) that they could not afford much more frequently.”
After taking office in 2020 as one of three new progressive prosecutors in Northern Virginia, current Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano ended the use of cash bail and stopped prosecuting simple marijuana possession cases prior to the state’s legalization, though future reform efforts could be challenged by Virginia’s incoming Republican administration.
Kennedy told FFXnow that the judicial system is now more receptive to alternatives to incarceration, as judges and prosecutors feel more comfortable not placing people in jail, because those individuals are getting more services outside of jail.
County Adopts Diversion Framework
One possible driving force behind the decline in Fairfax County’s incarcerated population in the last decade is its Diversion First policy, which began in 2016 after Natasha McKenna’s death at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center in February 2015.
The initiative aims to reduce the incarceration of people with mental health and substance use issues, as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities, by directing those arrested for nonviolent offenses to services instead of jail, which the county says is less costly. Read More