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Bill would give attorney general power to prosecute violent crimes

Person speaks into microphones
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares speaks to the crowd during an inaugural celebration Saturday Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Virginia commonwealth’s attorneys are responsible for prosecuting crimes in local communities. But Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares says some of them aren’t doing their job.

Miyares is set to unveil his legislative priorities in the coming days. It’s expected they will include a proposal to authorize his office to prosecute some local criminal cases.

Legislation has already been introduced in the Senate and is expected to come through the House as well. The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), provides that local sheriffs and police chiefs can request the attorney general’s help in prosecuting violent crimes. Right now, state law allows only commonwealth's attorneys to request  the attorney general’s assistance in local criminal prosecutions.

The bill is in the Senate committee on General Laws and Technology.

McDougle did not respond to requests for an interview. But Miyares spoke to VPM recently about the issue.

“The problem we’ve had from talking to both Sheriffs and police chiefs in some of these localities is people aren’t being prosecuted,” Miyares said. “It’s creating a huge, huge problem.”

Jeff Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association said he’s ``inclined to think it’s a good idea” and also that local law enforcement are frustrated with the lack of prosecutions.

Garren Shipley, spokesperson for House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), said the bill will be “well received” in the House, where Republicans hold a slim majority. 

“We have not had a broad discussion about that among the caucus yet, but there is a general sense that there are places in the commonwealth where justice is not being served,” he said.

As a prosecutor in Virginia Beach, Miyares handled more than 600 cases with a 90% conviction rate. However, he told VPM most of the crimes that came to his office were drug or theft related - not violent crimes.

Miyares has criticized progressive prosecutors in Virginia, many of whom have banded together as a reform-minded force, accusing them of arbitrarily reducing the sentences of violent criminals and ordering law enforcement not to investigate some crimes.

“What he is doing here is lodging illegitimate, demagogic complaints against progressive prosecutors even though we’re getting results,” said Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano. “Our community is happy with what we’re doing. We’re building a more fair and just criminal justice system. It’s just not what he would like to see.”

Miyares has repeatedly pointed to a Fairfax case in which a defendant was charged with raping a young child and was eligible for a life sentence. But, in accepting a plea deal, Descano reduced his sentence to 17 years. Descano said previously the sentence was longer than that of most defendants in Virginia who committed the same crimes. 

“We were able to get that person to be in jail, guaranteed, until almost his 70’s without having to put a young victim through the trauma of testifying,” he said. “To me, that is a great outcome.”