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Reforming Criminal Justice in Arlington, VA

The following are two interviews from the October Interwoven Congregations Quarterly highlighting the work of criminal justice reform in Arlington, VA by the Commonwealth Attorney and two local congregations.

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Commonwealth Attorney for Arlington County

Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Commonwealth Attorney for Arlington County, thank you for joining us for this interview about the partnership between Calloway United Methodist Church and Rock Spring United Church of Christ and their efforts to do racial justice. What potential do you see for congregations like Calloway and Rock Spring to specifically help make the criminal justice system more just?

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (Commonwealth Attorney for Arlington County): I applaud Rock Spring and Calloway for having their Courageous Conversations. To go in depth with stakeholders in the system is a huge step in the right direction. I was so grateful that when they asked me to be a presenter I asked if I could also be a participant, because I thought it would give me an opportunity not just to contribute but to learn.

ICQ: What did you cover during your presentation in the Courageous Conversations series?

Parisa: I talked about the disparities we have in our criminal justice system; restorative justice; how we are approaching reform; and why it's better to not ask for cash bail and create a safer community.

ICQ: What would you identify today as the chief challenges around racial equity in the criminal justice system for Arlington County?

Parisa: When I ran for office, a simple marijuana possession was the most frequently occurring charge in the county and it had extraordinary racial disparities attached to it. 57% of the defendants were people of color even though they're only 9% of county residents. In 2020, when I came into office, I had a study done by independent researchers of the charging decisions in 2017— 2018. They learned that if you were black, you were charged at a 50% higher rate of seriousness when you controlled for all other factors than if you were white. If you are black or Hispanic, you are more likely to get convicted, get a carceral sentence and more likely to have a longer period of probation than if you were white or Asian. So, we've adopted policies that address that, such as not asking for cash bail so poverty is not criminalized. People are less likely to get convicted or incarcerated and have lower recidivism rates if they're released quickly, as opposed to languishing in jail for months before resolution of the case.

ICQ: Where can congregations help?

Parisa: I really want to change the pretrial system to what probation was supposed to be when it was first envisioned. I've seen cases where somebody has done something seriously wrong but they get out on pre-trial and they have the support systems that they need to stop using drugs, to finish a GED, to start taking community college courses or getting into apprenticeships -- and they end up being rehabilitated so that we don't have to continue prosecuting them. But the vast majority of the people in our criminal legal system are indigent and don't have any capital or social capital. I would love to see faith communities give attention to pretrial ministries. If somebody has a business, take the risk to hire somebody, take them out to dinner, build a relationship with them, help them get a mentor so they can get the support systems that they need to pull themselves out of their situation. Then I also think faith communities are an incredibly natural place for restorative justice to flourish, like the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia's Restorative City's initiative for restorative justice.

ICQ: Can you describe a restorative justice program?

Parisa: The retributive system asks what law was broken, who broke it and how do we punish them? The restorative system asks who is harmed, what do they need to heal and who is responsible for that healing? In the restorative process there is a facilitator who communicates with both parties, an acceptance of responsibility, and an acknowledgment of harm. There’s a focus on what is needed for the healing of the victim, but also holding the individual who did the harm accountable. At the end of the restorative processes you see victims reporting upwards of 90% satisfaction rates with the process, and a reduction in recidivism. We have a system right now where if you're in prison for a number of years for stealing a car and you come out, you have an 80% nationwide recidivism rate. This system is a failure, so let's try something else.

ICQ: Are there any faith communities involved in restorative justice in Arlington?

Parisa: I know that Restorative Arlington’s executive director has been involved in Courageous Conversations with Rock Spring and Calloway and other communities like Arlington Presbyterian Church.

ICQ: What opportunities do you see for the criminal justice Racial Equity Action Group from Calloway and Rock Spring to help in addressing systemic racism?

Parisa: There will be more opportunities the more we talk. Can people help those who are out on pre-trial build social capital? Can people volunteer with Restorative Arlington and learn how to facilitate cases?

ICQ: I understand some folks with the criminal justice REAG participate in a “court watch” program.

Parisa: Yes! That's very important. The idea is to have people in court observing what's going on -- like one circuit court judge who actually put somebody in jail because they couldn't afford to pay $600 of restitution -- and then act to get the word out. People can also engage those who hold the purse strings and stand behind the people who are trying to reform the criminal justice system.

ICQ: What does that look like?

Parisa: That means putting pressure on the county board members by writing to them, calling them, and saying this is a priority for our community. There are criminal justice reformers who have had recall campaigns against them and a lot of us have felt like the communities that were excited about the work kind of went home. They still care about it, but the pressure wasn't kept up on the people who hold the purse strings to get the resources we need.

ICQ: What other advice might you offer our readers who want to try to impact systemic racism in the criminal justice arena but aren’t sure how?

Parisa: My office, in partnership with many stakeholders, had the first pre-expungement clinic in the history of Arlington. We had it because the clerk of court agreed to be there to do the paperwork filing. We had it because defense attorneys agreed to be there on a pro-bono basis. We had it because Arlington Presbyterian Church gave us their space for an entire Saturday. We had it because the Coalition of Black Clergy got the word out. We had it because Arlington for Justice agreed to pay for people's filing fees. That’s what partnerships can create.


"So start. Just start ... It doesn't always have to be big to be effective"

-- Saundra Green

The Zoom interview between Rev. Pat Jackson and Saundra Green and Gerri Ratliff.

ICQ: You are both leaders of the Criminal Justice "Racial Equity Action Group" from Calloway UMC and Rock Spring UCC. How long have you been a part of your congregations?

Saundra Green: My family has been a part of Calloway for over a 100 years and my great-great grandmother was one of the earliest persons buried in the cemetery. I was born in Washington, D.C. because in 1946 the Arlington hospitals were segregated. I was among the first students to integrate the Arlington schools, so I've seen Arlington transition over the years.


Gerri Ratliff: I moved to Arlington after college and I've been here for 40 years, and a member of Rock Spring UCC for six years.

ICQ: What does this partnership between the churches mean to you?

Saundra: For me, it's a re-igniting of a relationship because I remember when Rock Springs and Calloway had a relationship before and my mother being very involved. I hope that this reignited relationship will help us garner a greater understanding and respect for each other's perspective on racism -- because I've learned from our partnership more clearly why people may think the way they think. It's led for me to be less opinionated until I really get to know you.

Gerri: Although I’m a white person in a county that thinks of itself as progressive, I still live in a mostly white neighborhood and attend a mostly white church. And so I value the opportunity to develop relationships with folks from Calloway and learn through their life experiences and perspectives, including how systemic racism and our white-centric society affects them. For me, a way to tackle white supremacy is by following the lead of people of color and groups led by people of color.

ICQ: Can you describe the work you’re doing through the criminal justice REAG?

Saundra: We have at least 12 people registered in our group and we generally meet monthly. Individually, we've done research on what is of interest to us to introduce to the group. I've done a lot of work over the years with an individual on the board of the Northern Virginia Juvenile Center. So I invited him to the group to talk about the Juvenile Center, what they did there, who was housed there and why. I've heard that a lot of black students are the students that go through the court system and are referred to the detention center. Is that true or not? He came and gave us a wonderful presentation and then their executive director invited our group to come tour the facility and have a direct dialogue with her. We’ll go through with that and then talk about how we might have more involvement.

Gerri: We don’t require consensus from everyone in our group to take action. If one or two people want to support a particular project, great! For example, we learned about a new court watch program from our local Public Defender when he met with our group. Volunteers sit in court proceedings and take notes on the judges’ demeanor and decisions. Are some judges seemingly meting out harsher sentences against certain kinds of defendants? I’ve volunteered with the organization several times. Another group member, who's very interested in the school-to-prison pipeline, knew the Arlington Public School DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) director and invited him to speak to us. The Education REAG also joined that meeting. When we asked the DEI Director what we could do to support his work, he invited us to serve on an informal community council. So we've now had three or four meetings with that office and hope it will lead to concrete action to increase equity in the Arlington schools.

ICQ: How do you feel about your progress and impact so far?

Saundra: I was hoping that we could get a lot of action going to address some criminal justice issues in the county, but it's been slower than I thought. We have to be more patient because criminal justice has a lot of pieces to it, but I think we are moving in a good direction.

Gerri: I was hoping we would come up with specific actions that would move the needle for racial equity in the criminal justice system. It’s easy to support one-time actions like backpack drives for returning offenders. But if you are looking for actions that will effectively tackle systemic issues, those are harder to identify and work on as a small group of volunteers. So we look at existing groups, especially groups led by people of color, to see what they are doing that we can support. I also wanted to develop relationships with people who also are committed to racial justice so that when there's a need for community action, you know who to call and you already trust each other. So we keep educating ourselves and meeting relevant local officials so when an opportunity for systemic reform comes up, we’ll be ready!

ICQ: What advice would you have for other congregations that want to work to address systemic change in the criminal justice system?

Gerri: I would add that local leaders are usually very generous with their time. Congregations that are starting out might think, “Oh I hate to bother them, they're so busy.” But we've had success in getting these local leaders to come talk to us. I would also advise congregations to be patient. It’s hard for volunteer groups to work for systemic change on their own. Find an organization that's already working on an issue you’d like to be involved in and support it. Even providing financial support to those organizations makes a real difference. I guess I have a very simple theology about this work. Like Jesus said: love your neighbor. That's it, do it. And finding ways to apply that on the systemic level is just as important to me as on the individual level.

Saundra: Every day, when I look at the news, I am reminded of the importance of us having this group. Even though it may not happen in Arlington, it could happen in Arlington. It reminds me of the importance of doing something. So start. Just start. While it may seem overwhelming in the beginning, you need to go ahead and start. And realize that it doesn't always have to be big to be effective. So be okay now with small steps and small successes. But do something.

Gerri: I would add, for your readers who are white, a diverse group like this is an opportunity to learn more about just how deeply embedded white supremacy is in everything, including setting agendas and running meetings. Our tendency is to take over and think we know the right way to do things. I think we need to be open to learn, to be sensitive to those dynamics, and follow the lead of the folks who've been impacted by these issues. I don't think you can emphasize that enough.

[These interviews were part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]

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