This year, for the first time in 16 years, Loudoun got a new top prosecutor: Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj. And Biberaj is rethinking what it means to do justice in Loudoun’s legal system.
Biberaj talks quickly and works with a frenetic energy, at a desk mostly hidden under piles of files and statistics, and accompanied by her dog Lexis—after LexisNexis, the electronic repository of law, legal cases and research.
By contrast, some of the other offices in the building are still dark.
Unlike most other elected offices, when a new commonwealth’s attorney takes office, much of that office’s staff can change. The change can be greater when a Democrat moves into a chair that has been held by Republicans for the past quarter century.
Biberaj said out of 19 attorneys in the office, nine—almost half—left for various reasons following November’s election. A month into her term, five slots have already been filled, and she hopes to have the rest filled by the end of February.
She has been looking for fresh faces to put at those desks.
“What we wanted to do is what we said when we were running, is we want to have some diversity of experience,” Biberaj said. She is interviewing attorneys with experience in criminal defense and civil litigation, with the goal of building a team with a diversity of backgrounds. Previously, she said, “everybody else was straight prosecutors for their whole careers, which I thought lacked the diversity of trying to bring in some people with opportunities that they could share, their experiences. They could have a different lens.”
“We’re looking for litigators, trial attorneys, but people who have some diversity of perspective and experience,” Biberaj said.
And, she said, her Commonwealth’s Attorney Office will be interested not just in prosecuting crimes, but also weighing the community interest as a whole—both for the people accused of crimes, and for the taxpayers footing the bills.
“The perspective that we’re changing is that we’re actually having our attorneys look at that and say, what is the cost to the community?” Biberaj said. “So, if you have a young person who is 18 or 19 who has a shoplifting charge, do we have to have a conviction? What are the facts of the case? You have to look at that.”
She noted that criminal convictions in Virginia stay on a permanent record, and said those convictions can hurt a person who has since turned their life around, getting in the way of scholarships and jobs.
And, she pointed out, keeping people locked up can also be a bad investment for the taxpayer. It costs $166 a day cost to keep someone in jail awaiting trial in Loudoun, and a federally estimated cost of more than $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison.
“We can’t look at it in a vacuum and say, well, they did the crime, therefore they have to deal with the consequences,” Biberaj said. “That’s always an option, but is that serving the community best? And that’s what we want to do, is to have an assessment as to what is the impact to the community.”
She gave the example of someone stealing $210, just over the felony threshold for shoplifting, and then serving 30 days in jail, costing the taxpayer close to $5,000. She said that was “a waste of resources. … The community was spending a heck of a lot more, and what are you really teaching anybody?”
“That consideration was not there,” Biberaj said. “The consideration was, if they violated the laws, then they got punished, and when they got punished, sometimes it was very disparate as to the level of the harm that the offender committed, versus the level of harm that the system then imposed upon a person.”
To that end, she said she will be pushing to move more people into programs like the Circuit Court’s drug court and the District Court’s mental health docket, both of which come with intensive supervision and a broad range of mental health and life coaching support services designed to curb recidivism.
“What I’d like to do is to be able to work with the stakeholders and say, what makes that person with that diagnosis not eligible?” Biberaj said. “Because honestly, I think the more challenging the person is, the more we should try to get them into this program.”
One change that has been clear during cases over the past month is that her prosecutors will be seeking to impose cash bail on fewer defendants than in past years.
Virginia law holds that, unless releasing a person awaiting trial would be dangerous or there is reason to believe they will not appear for trial—and except in cases such as when they are accused of violent crimes, some drug crimes or have a history of felonies—defendants should be offered release on bail, or unsecured bond, while awaiting trial. But Biberaj said it’s common to impose a secured bond—such as cash—on people awaiting trial.
“The statute is actually properly worded, it’s just in practice it wasn’t being used that way,” she said. She said the law has other options available—such as GPS tracking, or monitoring drug intake for people accused of drug or alcohol abuse. “There’s other things that we can put in place [as opposed] to putting someone in custody and them losing their job.”
She said statistical information on the office’s previous work is hard to come by—little data was gathered on past years, and having her staff spend hours dredging up tens of thousands of cases from the courthouse is an expense she can’t justify.
Going forward, however, she said her office will be gathering data such as charges, convictions, and recidivism to help track which of their policies are making a difference.
“What we want to do is focus our attention on preventing crime, protecting our citizens from being victims, and when push comes to shove, we can prosecute,” Biberaj said. “But the best way we can serve the community is by preventing crime. When we prevent crimes by education or services, that’s when I think we’ve done the best service or justice for people in Loudoun County.”