Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj has pushed for a new philosophy from public prosecutors, but the budgetary impacts of those changes have given county supervisors pause.
Among the changes Biberaj, the first new elected Commonwealth’s Attorney in 16 years, is bringing to the office is an attempt to keep more people who qualify for pretrial release out of jail while awaiting their day in court. She argues that is better for those defendants and for public safety, and it saves money on jailing people—which costs more than $60,000 a year per inmate.
“In the past it was not uncommon to have someone come before the court on a petit larceny, which is not a crime of violence, and be held for weeks on end or months because they could not afford a bond,” Biberaj told supervisors on March 5.
County supervisors expressed concern that some of the people granted pretrial release are accused of violent crimes, such as assault, strangulation, manslaughter, or abduction by force.
“When I look down the list of the kind of violent individuals that are being recommended for pretrial supervision rather than incarceration, it makes me nervous,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg).
But as shocking as those charges may be, Biberaj argued the court must determine whether those people pose an unreasonable risk of flight or to the community or themselves—and that it is not new for people accused of violent crimes to be free before their trial.
She gave examples from some of Loudoun’s most infamous crimes, such as those of Braulio Castillo, who was convicted of murdering his wife and trying to stage her death as a suicide. Castillo posted a $2 million bond and was freed before his trial.
Another, a former church deacon accused of multiple counts of sexual battery and taking indecent liberties with a child, was placed on pretrial release in 2018, required to wear a GPS monitoring device and have no unsupervised contact with children. He posted a $10,000 bond.
She cannot unilaterally decide whether to release a person before their trial; those decisions are made by judges and magistrates. But under her watch, she has said, prosecutors will ask that fewer people be forced to pay a cash bond to get out of jail before their trial.
“We’re saying, if a person is eligible to be released in the community from a safety perspective, then bond should not be the reason why they are kept,” Biberaj told supervisors. And, she said, that approach would not create a threat to the community—“it’s actually increasing the safety, by allowing someone to be able to maintain a job, supply for their family, be able to get the services, and we still have the presumption of innocence. That’s the part that we have to always remember.”
The majority of people locked up in Virginia and in the country, she said, are pretrial—meaning they have not yet been convicted of any crime.
“If this person is not a continuing risk, then why would we not allow them to be out?” Biberaj said. “And if you can apply that to Mr. Castillo, how does that not apply to someone who has a petit larceny?”
In the short term, however, that change has already meant the Department of Community Corrections needs a budget boost to hire another officer to supervise people on pretrial release. And Biberaj’s request for funding for a new deputy commonwealth’s attorney, two new assistant commonwealth’s attorneys, a chief of staff and a new executive assistant, totaling $659,834 in new spending, met resistance from county supervisors. Only the attorneys are included in County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget, totaling $478,806.
Even that, Biberaj argued in a memo to supervisors, falls short of the office’s basic needs. The office also will need more help as the Sheriff’s Office adds more body-worn cameras and when a new District Court building in Leesburg opens. With an estimated 13,000 to 16,800 cases a year, the office needs at least 20 attorneys just for the courthouse, she said, and at least 25 in total; currently, the office has 19.
It also falls short of what she says the office needs in administrative staffing.
“The results that we’ve had over the last decade-plus from the county, at least from a crime standpoint, are impressive,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “We have not seen a big increase in crime, we’ve had continual reductions in crime, so it’s hard to believe that the previous regime was able to do that with 16, 17 attorneys covering all of the courthouses and not coming to us with complaints about that.”
And Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) attempted to cut two of those new attorneys from the budget.
“I agree that the new commonwealth’s attorney, Ms. Biberaj, was duly elected by the people of Loudoun County, and I fully respect that, and I look forward to working with her, but I don’t think the people of Loudoun County elected all these new positions that we’re about to decide upon,” Buffington said.
Supervisors were divided on that. County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Supervisors Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling), Sylvia Russell Glass (D-Broad Run) and Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) voted against cutting those positions. Buffington and Supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg), Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn), and Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) voted in favor. With a 4-4 tie, the motion failed, Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) was absent from that part of the meeting.
“To do our job right, it takes time,” Biberaj said. “Can we process cases? All day long. If we don’t care about who goes before the court, a box can be checked. We don’t’ process that way.”