On November 5, 2019, Fairfax County residents will vote for candidates for the office of Commonwealth Attorney [OCA] to serve a four-year term. In the absence of a lay or civilian review board, this opportunity for the electorate to voice its sentiments remains its sole opportunity to express voter opinion concerning the performance and mission of the agency.
When Kentucky separated from Virginia in 1792 to become the 15th state, it retained the appellation “commonwealth” as a jurisdiction. Although Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are also commonwealths, only the Virginia and Kentucky constitutions provide for Commonwealth’s Attorneys, as all other legal jurisdictions in the United States generally apply the term district attorney to the office.
The powers and duties of OCA are simultaneously both generic and broad with respect to functions and mission. As the chief prosecutorial officer in the county, the OCA operates as an essential partner in the criminal justice system along with the state, county, and local police as well as with the sheriff, whose department also oversees the county jail system and court system security. State and local law enforcement often cooperate with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office in the conduct of investigations.
As is generally characteristic of the vast majority of prosecutorial agencies across the nation, the OCA is a low-profile government department. Increasingly, however, issues within the criminal justice system have risen to the forefront of concern and, in a few areas, the Fairfax OCA has responded with several initiatives, partnering with other County agencies and community-based service providers to establish a Veterans Treatment Docket, a Drug Court, Diversion First, and a pilot Mental Health/Supervised Release Program Docket.
These efforts recognize three crucial reform components of criminal justice: recognition that the criminal justice system does not operate in a social vacuum, e.g., veterans’ treatment; rational and reasonable application of prosecutorial power can better serve justice than imprisonment, e.g., diversion program; and the broad discretion of the office to defer prosecution [prosecutorial discretion] may better serve both justice and the community more effectively. Crucially, voter selection of candidates to engage the criminal justice system in this manner becomes the focus of candidate campaigning.
In its ordinary course of business, the Fairfax OCA prosecutes both the violation of County ordinances and violation of state statutes, creating a substantial caseload–one of the highest per prosecutor in the Commonwealth. The OCA oversees the broad range of offenses, from murder, rape, robbery, and burglary to illegal drug sales, from arrest to trial. In addition, a wide variety of misdemeanor and traffic cases, including more than 4,000 driving under-the-influence violations, thousands of assaults, and thousands of petty thefts fall under its jurisdiction.
Despite the OCA’s low profile, the agency is nonetheless a vital function in the county’s and Commonwealth’s criminal justice system as well as the quality of the lives of their residents.
Further, state law specifically mandates certain duties for the Commonwealth’s Attorney. He is charged with advising the Grand Jury relative to its duties, representing the Electoral Board in certain election matters, and advising any officers or employees of Fairfax City or Fairfax County on matters involving conflict of interest. In the current fiscal year, the Fairfax OCA operates on nearly $4 million, supporting 40 attorneys, including its chief elected officer, along with several managerial and administrative personnel.
Despite the OCA’s low profile, the agency is nonetheless a vital function in the county’s and Commonwealth’s criminal justice system as well as the quality of the lives of their residents. OCA, as noted, touches the lives of many thousands of individuals in the course of a single year, and that point of contact is a signature metric of the agency’s character as well as its leadership.
Whatever choice of candidate voters make on Election Day, OCA’s new chief will have significant opportunity to brighten the perception of the county’s electorate with respect to its mission and undertake initiatives to fashion criminal justice in the county to reflect its diverse population. The personal qualities of the successful candidate are crucial to success in the role especially with respect to prosecutorial discretion and increased citizen involvement in OCA’s effectiveness. Mature judgment is a core criterion.