How’s Descano’s Social-Justice Prosecution Policy Working Out?

A Fairfax County police car vandalized with spray paint in a 2016 incident.

by James A. Bacon

Steve Descano was elected Commonwealth Attorney of Fairfax County in 2019 on the promise that he would end mass incarceration by winding down the prosecution of marijuana possession and raising the threshold to $1,500 for larceny prosecutions. As he stated in his reform platform, “I will not ruin someone’s life because of an impulsive decision to steal an iPhone.”

It did not take long for his policies to spark a backlash. Charging Descano with pleading felonies to misdemeanors, a failure to punish reckless drivers,  and abandoning victims of violent crimes, a Fairfax citizens group has launched a recall initiative.

With the publication of the Crime in Virginia 2020 report, we have the data to get a better feeling for what Descano was up to last year. The statistics for Virginia’s most populous county indicate that he was as good as his word — he significantly reduced prosecutions for shoplifting and drug-related crimes. The big question is whether Descano’s brand of social justice will make Fairfax County less livable for law-abiding, middle-class families.

The so-called “broken windows” theory of crime suggests that a failure to enforce minor crimes like shoplifting and vandalism creates an environment of disorder in which, over time, people feel increasingly emboldened to engage in criminal behavior. There is already evidence that the county could be approaching a tipping point.

“Crime in Virginia” 2020 tells the tale. Fairfax County got a whole lot more social justice last year.

  • Drug/narcotic offenses reported plunged from 5,242 in 2019 to 2,726 last year, 48%. Arrests were down 58%.
  • Shoplifting incidents reported dropped from from 4,732 in 2019 to 3,892 in 2020, or 18%.
  • “Drunkenness” arrests tumbled from 2,335 to 1,419, or 39%.
  • “Driving under the influence” arrests fell from 1,802 in 2019 to 1,138 in 2020, or 37%. 

The “Crime in Virginia 2020” report does not tell us how many individuals arrested for crimes were actually prosecuted. I am assuming here that dramatic declines in arrests occurred in response to guidance from the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.

But there were signs that social fabric was fraying. Reports of:

  • Motor vehicle thefts jumped from 869 to 1,281 from year to year, up 47%.
  • Thefts from motor vehicles surged from 2,677 to 3,358, up 25%.
  • Vandalism/destruction of property leaped from 4,126 in 2019 to 4,705, up  14%.

On the other hand reports of crimes against persons — simple assault, aggravated assault, manslaughter and murder — did not change significantly. Fairfax was not afflicted with a violent crime spree in 2020.

At the moment, Fairfax County appears to enjoy the best of both worlds — a reduction in minor crimes reported, which advances Descano’s notions of social justice, without an increase in violent crime that terrifies voters.

What hidden costs might there be? First, with a decline in arrests for drunken driving from 1,802 in 2019 to 1,138, there could be more drunk drivers on the road. Did the number of traffic accidents, injuries and deaths increase as a result? We don’t know. The Department of Motor Vehicles has not reported its 2020 data. But here’s a benchmark for comparison: in 2019 DMV reported 13,301 crashes, 6,032 injuries and 45 fatalities.

Another hidden cost is the impact on Fairfax retail. If the county has become a shoplift-with-impunity zone and people can steal without fear of punishment, one can predict a significant increase in store theft — even if stores no longer bother to report incidents. San Francisco, where shoplifters face no punishment and petty theft is surging, has generated headlines recently from store closings. Could the same troubling phenomenon occur to Fairfax County? We’ll find out.

Finally, there is the issue of broken windows — or, more precisely, vandalism and destruction of property. The knowledge that minor crimes against property go unpunished will give rise to more anti-social behavior and civil disorder. If there is any validity to the Broken Windows theory of crime, it appears that Fairfax County is heading down that path. The surge in automobile break-ins, thefts from cars, and vandalism all are potentially leading indicators that criminality is climbing the ladder, so to speak, to more serious crimes.

Perhaps the jumps in vandalism and auto thefts last year was random statistical noise. Perhaps Fairfax County, an affluent suburban jurisdiction, will prove the Broken Windows theory wrong. I’m just glad I don’t live there while Steve Descano conducts his real-life social-science experiment.

Corrections: The original version of this post mixed up data for “offenses” and “arrests” for certain crime classifications. The column has been re-written extensively to incorporate the correct data.

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34 responses to “How’s Descano’s Social-Justice Prosecution Policy Working Out?”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “First, with a decline in arrests for drunken driving from 1,802 in 2019 to 1,138, there are likely more drunk drivers on the road. Did the number of traffic accidents, injuries and deaths”

    Did it occur to you that with the closure of bars early because of Covid that there were actually fewer drunk drivers on the road. That might explain the fewer arrests… no…? That could very well apply to many of the other stats you cited. Overall, crime dropped significantly across the US during the pandemic.

    1. Not necessarily. Alcohol sales are up. I heard a news report from the DC area that corresponds to this report from California:

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Reclining under the Influence. Stay at home drinking.

        1. Not necessarily. Traffic violations were up in many areas even though traffic was down.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            as well as folks on airliners…

            it’s the “I’ve got “rights” folks…

    2. I think you raise a valid point about the impact of COVID on bar closures. That’s been well documented. But a 97% drop in drunkenness and drunk drivers? I’m not buying it.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        “broken windows” is a discredited theory:

        and tell me how many other developed countries is it used?

        it’s just a carnard from the law & order folks

        How a 50-year-old study was misconstrued to create destructive broken-windows policing
        The harmful policy was built on a shaky foundation.

        Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing

        How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong

        but wrong-headed Conservatives beliefs die hard – not even a stake-through-the-heart works every time!

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Was once told that trash can ordinances will reduce the murder rate by a very serious city employee who job it was to write violation for trash cans left on the street after 7AM the day after collection. The city wanted to impose a $250/day administrative fine in a city with a median income of $40,000.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            What I’d LIKE to see a study on is shopping cart scofflaws.

            Something is fundamentally wrong with folks who won’t put their carts in the cart corrals… I wish the police would take it more seriously.

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Death to those who would abandon a defenseless cart in the parking lot!

            The spousal unit insists on taking the cart back to the store building. We load the groceries, she takes the cart to the building, and by the time I get there with the car, she’s waiting at the curb.

            It’s just one of her many insistences. (Bloody crazy is what she is, but you get use to it, and eventually come to a kind of better place.)

  2. The article refers to a recall initiative in Fairfax County. Virginia does not have a recall statute. Virginia has a removal statute (VA Code 24.2-233). Registered voters can initiate a removal petition, and if it meets the statutory requirements the petition can be filed in a circuit court. The circuit court makes the decision whether there are statutory grounds for removal of the official named in the removal petition.

    1. WayneS Avatar


  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think you can recall someone from office because you disagree with their policies. That’s what elections are for.

    1. Isn’t that what all recalls are about- Scott Walker, Gavin Newsom, etc.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Can be but in Virginia if not mistaken, it has to be shown to be more than a disagreement with a given policy.

        I think Steve or Dick could fill in info on this.

        1. See earlier posting on Bacon’s Rebellion that discusses removal petitions at

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Right. I have zero doubts that AD Hoc “online” petitions that may have been signed by anyone whether in the district or not or not even registered would pass muster.

            BUT , for the actual legitimate process that DOES exist – how about listing out the specific blow-by-blow steps again?

            My impression is that it’s not an easy process at all and something about being “convicted” subsequent to the vote or some such?

            My impression is that Virginia’s “recall” is nothing like recalls in other states like California where someone actually CAN be removed forthwith if they have the votes.

            AND it actually has been done – I think Grey Davis was removed.


            I’d actually support a more functional recall in Virginia – even if it is strongly desired by folks on the right because I’m sure it would usually end up with the recall failing in areas where Conservatives are in the minority anyhow.

            Lots of fire and fury in places like NoVa but bottom line, it’s is not a Conservative voting electorate, just a loud minority!

          2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            Upon a petition signed by a number of residents equal to at least 10 percent of those voting at the last election, a circuit court may remove an elected official “for neglect of duty, misuse of
            office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that neglect
            of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties
            has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office” or upon conviction of certain misdemeanors. The officer being targeted must appear in court to “show cause” why he should not be removed from office and can request a jury trial.

            There is no provision in Virginia law for a recall election.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            That’s what I thought, thanks.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Yes, Larry, but now that they are losing elections, recall involves storming the capitols and suppressing votes.

  4. tmtfairfax Avatar

    Some of Descano’s ideas make sense. There are issues with traffic stops with respect to blacks and whites. He makes a credible argument against cash bail but I do think that this issue should be addressed by the General Assembly and not by the Commonwealth’s Attorney. I have always felt there is a need to give a person who commits a non-violent offense a second chance. Keep in mind that a violent attack on personal or real property is violence.

    At the same time, deaths and serious injuries related to traffic crashes are up and VDOT and local governments are pledging to address them. (And the data show that bad behavior on roads, including speeding, distracted driving and driving under the influence has not dropped significantly during the pandemic.) The proffered path includes engineering, education and enforcement. The Commonwealth’s Attorney should not unilaterally muck up this effort.

    Getting soft on property crimes does bread more property crimes. How does Descano plan to address the repeat offender? I’ve not heard a good answer. Violence against people needs to be addressed.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    I’m sure the $1500 was for FELONY larceny prosecution. The limits are out of whack.

    As for opioids, prosecute the Sacklers ans shutter Purdue confiscate all assets.

  6. Chris Slatt Avatar
    Chris Slatt

    Definitely nothing strange or different about 2020 that might result in different arrest statistics. I thought Bacon’s Rebellion was better than this. My mistake.

  7. Bob X from Texas Avatar
    Bob X from Texas

    New York is currently proving that the “BrokenWindows” theory correct.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Unlike texas where “Broken Windows” theory has been implemented as Kristallnacht Redux.

  8. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    It’s past time to drop the “Minnesota nice” or “Protestant work ethic” act. If they want to decriminalize lots of stuff start playing along.
    Pee right in front of Lululemon. Or better in Lululemon. Take a “free” drink from Starbucks. Etc.
    This is who we are now. Soon we will have lots and lots and lots of gated communities with nice private security forces. And it will be the people who live in those gated communities who vote for idiotic “crime” bills who make it necessary to live in gated communities. Those without the resources to live behind a wall will have Mogadishu or at best Baltimore.

  9. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    This post assumes that the “broken windows” theory is valid. Although it was widely accepted at one time, criminologists have looked more closely at in recent years. They discovered that crime was declining nationwide, even in jurisdictions that did not adopt the “broken windows” approach. One of the authors of the original article that posited the “broken windows” theory has conceded that broken windows may not have had a significant effect on crime.

    The author’s assumption “that dramatic declines in arrests occurred in response to guidance from the Commonwealth Attorney’s office” is somewhat presumptive. The police do not work for the Commonwealth’s Attorney. The police chief is appointed either by the county manager or the Board of Supervisors (I can’t remember which arrangement is used by Fairfax County.)

    As for those “dramatic declines” in arrests, they can reflect on the ability of the police to clear crimes as much as they do on policy changes.

    Let’s look at those declines:

    Drug/narcotics–The State Police data do not differentiate between marijuana and Schedule I controlled substances. The decline in drug offenses and arrests is probably due mostly to the decision of the General Assembly to decriminalize the possession of pot to a civil penalty subject to fine.

    Shoplifting–Incidents down by 18 percent. Not surprising during a period when many stores were closed for long periods of time. How does a decline in shoplifting reflect negatively in Descanos?

    Drunkenness–Bars and restaurants closed would lead to fewer people being drunk in public. More to the point, this is an offense for which low income and minorities historically have been arrested to a higher degree than whites. Maybe the Fairfax County police are getting the message. Furthermore, for such a misdemeanor charge, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office would not be involved. Again, no connection to Descanos.

    DUI–Arrests fell 37 percent. That is not unreasonable considering bars and restaurants were closed for most of 2020. Also, there were fewer people out driving around.

    This post takes data from an unusual year, when there were many factors to account for, and stretches it to try to fit a preconceived notion of a what is viewed as a liberal Commonwealth’s Attorney. To appropriately judge his record, one needs to look at specific actions taken by that office: charges dropped, plea bargains, who got out on bond and who did not, cases won, etc.

    1. tmtfairfax Avatar

      And our new police chief was twice found by Maryland courts to have engaged in bad conduct so extreme that it was not protected by qualified immunity. I think the NAACP is correct, such that Kevin Davis should be fired an a new chief hired.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Broken Windows is also closely associated with stop & frisk as well as traffic stops for taillights and such.

      As far as I can tell, no other developed country polices that way .

    3. Fair point regarding the decline in shoplifting offenses being tied partially to the COVID epidemic.

      What do you have to say about the increase in car thefts and vandalism?

  10. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    Anecdotally the two main problems I see by me (in Ffx) are (1) speeding/careless driving, and (2) we have some car break-ins at night. We are close to Maryland and have a fair amount of cross-the-state-border crime. I’d be curious, if it is said Ffx arrests more blacks by population ratio, how many of those crimes are from Marylanders crossing over?

    I provided witness for a red light running crash last week. Luckily the crash was not as serious as the potential might have been.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Of course, some of the crime in Maryland could have been committed by Virginians crossing over. Reciprocity and all that.

      1. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

        I hear you Dick, but seems to me for whatever demographic factors, housing costs, we don’t hear many NoVa people going to Md to do robberies and thefts.

    2. tmtfairfax Avatar

      I’ve attended a few briefings by the Fairfax County police on crime in the Tysons area. Many of the thefts are part of an organized crime effort by outsiders. (During one briefing, we saw a detective questioning a suspect from New York who had been caught with more than $75 K in stolen merchandise from Tysons I earlier that day.) Many thieves come via Metrorail from D.C. and Maryland, according to FCPD.

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