With primary day for state and local offices here in Virginia coming up on June 11, one of the races that’s received a fair amount of attention is the Democratic primary for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fairfax County. Voters will have to decide between incumbent Ray Morrogh, who was first elected to the position back in 2007 and has served as a prosecutor in Fairfax since the 1980’s, and his challenger, former federal prosecutor Steve Descano. The two of them squared off in the final debate of the primary last night in Vienna at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and the ACLU.
The campaign has inspired discussion on a variety of important issues, but someone watching last night’s debate could essentially boil down the campaign to a simple sentiment unrelated to a specific policy. Essentially, Ray Morrogh believes Steve Descano is naive and inexperienced and therefore can’t be trusted to properly run the relatively large office effectively. Descano, on the other hand, believes Morrogh’s had twelve years to implement sound policies and promote progressive values but has failed to do so.
Perhaps one of the most hotly contested topics of discussion during the debate was the issue of cash bail, which Descano even admitted he brings up at essentially every event he attends. Descano argued Morrogh has a history of insisting on cash bail for defendants and claims this is both bad for the accused and for the community at large. Not only does the community have to pay $225 a day to keep someone locked up, for example, but the accused might loss there job or face other negative consequences that will only lead to even more crime being committed.
Independent studies have confirmed Descano has something to be worried about when it comes to cash bail. One study showed a defendant who is locked up for two to three days is 40% more likely to commit another crime than someone who’s held for less than twenty-four hours. And the number only goes up for those who stay in jail longer while awaiting trial. Other studies have also shown that the negative consequences of cash bail has a disproportionate impact on people of color.
At one point in the debate, Morrogh responded to a question by saying he would indeed like to see Fairfax County do away with the cash bail system. In other words, he agrees with Descano that it’s not in the best interest of Fairfax residents to have the system in place — especially when private businesses are in the habit of making a large profit off of it. But he also used the issue as an opportunity to illustrate why he thinks Descano doesn’t have enough knowledge about Virginia’s criminal justice system to actually be an effective Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Morrogh highlighted how in Fairfax County, he has directed his prosecutors not to actively ask for cash bail. When it comes down to how the court system is run in Virginia, however, statutes do sometimes limit discretion on the issue and it’s actually the magistrates who recommend a certain amount of bail. That amount is then reviewed and put in place by the judge even if the Commonwealth’s Attorney never asked for bail.
He also pointed out how he’s frequently seen defendants end up asking for cash bail in lieu of supervised release because they don’t want to deal with requirements such as being drug tested. Morrogh claims Descano probably isn’t aware of this because “he hasn’t tried a case in our courthouse, so he doesn’t understand” how the process works.
Another big theme for Descano during the debate was going after his opponent’s record on race related issues. At several different points in the forum, he focused in on how Morrogh had joined a GOP led lawsuit challenging Terry McAuliffe’s decision to restore voting rights to non-violent felons who had already served their time. His reaction was so strong in part because Morrogh supposedly said he never realized disenfranchising felons had its roots in Jim Crow and was designed to ensure large numbers of people of color couldn’t vote.
Descano also went after Morrogh for not seeking data on how race relations were handled in Fairfax County. While Morrogh did promise during the debate to get the relevant data, his challenger was quick to point out that he’s already had years to gather the information but has failed to do so.
“I’m not even in office yet and I’ve already talked to multiple organizations about getting the data,” Descano said. “You’re not going to be waiting for twelve years to get the data.”
This is a prime example of an issue where Descano claims Morrogh says the right things publicly, but his inaction on the topic is simply unacceptable. Right from the opening statements, he launched into this type of argument while highlighting how Fairfax has only had two Commonwealth’s Attorneys since the 1960’s and the office hasn’t kept up with the changes the county’s seen in the last few decades. He “the status quo” is no longer acceptable and a new voice is needed to help lead reform efforts.
Morrogh once again used this as an opportunity to illustrate how he believes Descano simply doesn’t understand the complexity of some issues. After pointing out that he’s actually to the left of his opponent on the restoration of voting rights (he only thinks they should be taken away if someone’s convicted of treason or terrorism), the Commonwealth’s Attorney pointed out that he joined the bipartisan group of 53 people challenging McAuliffe’s move because it also included allowing felons to petition for their right to purchase guns. He even highlighted how the brief he joined specifically stated they believed felons should still have their voting rights restored, just not their access to firearms.
When it comes to race relations, there’s also be a national discussion about holding police officers accountable when they’re involved in violence against members of the community. Morrogh pointed out that while the vast majority of the officers serve Fairfax honorably, he has taken steps to hold some officers accountable. If an officer is found to have lied about a case, for example, he’s implemented processes to make sure future defendants know about the situation.
Morrogh also highlighted how he’s unfortunately also had to prosecute a police officer for murder. This was a move he claims strained his relationship with leaders in the police union, but was the right decision and illustrates how he’s willing to move forward with holding people accountable for their actions. According to a Washington Post story about the officer’s indictment, it was the first time in the Fairfax County Police Department’s history an officer was charged with a crime related to an on duty shooting.
With all that in mind, here are a few more quick hits about what happened during the forum:
- Morrogh says the only time he works with ICE is when he’s trying to get a visa for witnesses or victims of crimes. This is something that frequently comes up when he’s working to get victims of domestic violence to testify in court.
- Descano says he wouldn’t charge a felony for theft of items under $1,500. He claims he’s “not going to ruin someone’s life for stealing an iPhone.” Morrogh also says he supports raising the felony theft threshold and has been working with state legislators like Sen. Chap Peterson for years to help make this happen.
- Descano was so concerned about constantly tearing down Morrogh’s record that at one point he had to proclaim “I know this might surprise you, but I agree with everything you just said.” Interestingly, a lot of people have mentioned the two agree on a lot of issues. To that point, Ben Tribbett took to twitter during the forum to highlight how “everytime there has been a “yes or no” answer round in a debate in this race, there have been zero differences between Descano and Morrogh.”
- Morrogh used his closing statement to say he’s most proud of “busting the school to prison pipeline” and mentioned there’s only 20 people in juvenile detention.
All in all, both candidates were well received by the approximately 100 people in attendance. The candidates received about the same amount of applause after their closing statements. That being said, Descano did come across as the more skilled politician as he was working the crowd both before and after the debate. Based on some of the reaction I heard from audience members, however, that might have been counteracted by his constant need to launch attacks during the debate instead of focusing in on what he would personally do to help improve Fairfax County.
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the whole forum was how this was a race that doesn’t often receive a significant amount of attention. So the plain and simple fact that a forum was held during the primary shows the greater amount of attention prosecutors have been receiving recently. If nothing else, the public has been benefiting from an increased focus on the need for criminal justice reform in Northern Virginia.