Former Justice Department prosecutor Steve Descano (left) and incumbent Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh participate in a candidate forum hosted by the Fairfax County NAACP.

For the first time since his initial election in 2007, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh has a challenger.

Former federal attorney Steve Descano announced in November that he will seek to become the county’s top prosecutor this fall, and his campaign declared on Jan. 17 that he had received an endorsement from former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who apparently hopes to see opponents of his 2016 executive order restoring voting rights to felons unseated.

Voters got a look at both Morrogh and Descano at a candidate forum hosted on Mar. 16 by the Fairfax County branch of the NAACP at the Chantilly Baptist Church.

As Descano pledged to bring more transparency and reform to the Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Morrogh emphasized his 35 years of experience in the office while stating that he remains open to enacting changes.

“As Commonwealth’s attorney, I’ve done an effective job of keeping this county one of the safest in the nation for its size while working hard to foster criminal justice reform,” Morrogh said. “…I’m just really proud of our whole system and my role in it.”

A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and veteran of the U.S. Army, Descano spent six years as a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama administration with stints as a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and as a trial attorney in the DOJ’s criminal tax division and consumer protection branch.

Descano left the Justice Department in 2016 to become chief operating officer and general counsel for Paragon Autism Services, a mental health center in Fredericksburg for children diagnosed along the autism spectrum.

Descano is also a member of the Fairfax County NAACP. He has served on its criminal justice committee and represents the civil rights group on Fairfax County’s Police Civilian Review Panel.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors established the panel on Dec. 6, 2016 to provide oversight for investigations into abuse of authority and misconduct allegations against Fairfax County Police Department officers.

Descano argued at the NAACP forum that the commonwealth’s attorney needs to take a more proactive approach to addressing racial inequities and other systemic issues observed in the criminal justice system, pointing to the decriminalization of marijuana and elimination of cash-bail pre-trial detentions as two of his priorities.

“You’re three times more likely in Fairfax if you’re African American to be prosecuted for [marijuana possession],” Descano said. “That’s another racial disparity. We can end it by getting away from charging those cases and stop ruining people’s lives.”

Descano criticized Morrogh for opposing McAuliffe’s voting rights restoration executive orders, which were issued between April and June 2016 and affected more than 200,000 Virginia residents convicted of felonies who are no longer incarcerated.

Virginia remains one of three states that permanently disenfranchises citizens with a felony conviction on their record, but the Virginia Constitution currently gives the governor the ability to restore political rights.

Republicans sought to have McAuliffe’s executive order overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court, calling his action unconstitutional since it was issued broadly without reviewing individual cases.

Morrogh was among the five Democratic commonwealth’s attorneys who joined 38 Republican and independent prosecutors on an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in opposition to McAuliffe’s executive order.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in July 2016 that the executive orders violated the state constitution and that the governor must make clemency determinations on an individual basis.

Morrogh says he opposed McAuliffe’s executive orders, because by restoring voting rights, they gave felons the ability to file civil petitions to regain gun rights.

“Voting rights shouldn’t be linked to gun rights,” Morrogh said.

In making the case for his reelection, Morrogh highlighted his office’s participation in Fairfax County’s Diversion First program, which launched in 2016 and aims to offer alternatives to jail for people with mental health issues, substance use disorders, and developmental disabilities.

Fairfax County introduced a veterans’ docket in 2015 and a drug docket in September 2018 that allow defendants who committed non-violent crimes to participate in court-supervised treatment programs instead of being incarcerated.

The county has also been running a pilot mental health docket since August 2018 under Fairfax District Court Judge Tina Snee, who has heard at least 160 cases and anticipates that an official docket will launch in April, according to a presentation delivered at a meeting of Diversion First stakeholders on Jan. 28.

“I’d just like people to know I’m going to keep you safe, but I’m going to be forward-looking,” Morrogh said. “I’m going to try to keep people out of jail who don’t belong. I’m going to treat the mentally ill and drug-addicted with empathy and mercy whenever I can.”

Descano proposed expanding eligibility for Fairfax County courts’ specialty dockets, arguing that the justice system needs to provide more diversion options to defendants without requiring them to be convicted, like the drug court, or plead guilty, as the veterans’ docket does.

“We need our values to be reflected in our criminal justice system,” Descano said. “Even more than that, the commonwealth’s attorney is the leader of our criminal justice system, and we need somebody in that position that leads and is guided by our community values each and every day.”

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