Buta Biberaj says her criminal justice reform message has been muddled by criticism of her, but the mission will continue.
“When change is transformative, it makes some people very nervous and those who are nervous are the ones who are going to fight it the most,” the Democratic Biberaj said during an announcement on Feb. 13 that she is seeking a second term as Loudoun County commonwealth’s attorney. “Yes, the narrative has been taken away. But at the end of the day, what do we know? That safety is up and crime is down.”
Biberaj, who promised to focus on violent crime and reduce prosecutions of low-level drug crimes during her 2019 campaign, noted violent crime in Loudoun is down since she took office in 2020. Violent crime decreased 31% between 2019 and 2021 in Loudoun, according to Virginia State Police statistics. Violent crime increased about 7% statewide in 2021, but dropped 12.5% in Loudoun. Among the accomplishments Biberaj cited at her announcement:
- Increased funding for victims of sexual assaults and other violent crimes and an increase in the number of attorneys in the special victims unit, which prosecutes sex crimes.
- The number of domestic violence and sex crime case managers increased from four to seven and the office was awarded $330,000 federal grant to reduce sexual assaults.
- Investments in alternatives to incarceration to reduce jail and prison overcrowding and recidivism. That includes reducing the daily population at the Loudoun Adult Detention Center by 41% from 425 to 250 inmates saving taxpayers about $40,000 per day and up to $14.6 million annually.
Biberaj said she hopes the savings will be spent proactively, such as in increasing mental health services budgets. About 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to the American Psychological Association and Department of Justice.
While Biberaj said she’s brought positive change to her office, critics said it’s been negative and characterized her office as dysfunctional. Among the criticisms:
The release on bond by a judge of Peter James Lollobrigido in 2021 after he was accused of badly beating his wife. A month after his release, Lollobridigo was accused of killing his wife
- and critics say Biberaj’s office should’ve opposed the release.
- in the 2021 killing of Najat Chemlali-Goode. Prior to Judge James E. Plowman dismissing the case, a county prosecutor missed the deadline for turning over witness information to the defense meaning the witnesses could testify, but not offer expert testimony.
- to have police, rather than prosecutors, handle minor misdemeanor cases to reduce prosecutor workloads.
At Biberaj’s announcement, she was backed by about 15 supporters, but heckled by about 20 protesters. “Boot Buta now,” they chanted prior to her speaking and sometimes shouted over her as she spoke.
While the Democratic primary is in June and the election in November, Sean Kennedy, president of Virginians for Safe Communities — a conservative group that has launched several failed recalls against Biberaj and other liberal prosecutors in Northern Virginia — said the recall effort will continue. He accused Biberaj of “negligence, dereliction of duty and incompetence” and denied the effort disenfranchises Loudoun voters, who elected Biberaj by a 51% to 49% margin.
Defense attorney Elizabeth Jean Lancaster, who is challenging Biberaj in the Democratic primary, acknowledged in an interview before the announcement that crime is down under Biberaj. However, Lancaster called her an “HR nightmare” a reference to high turnover in Biberaj’s office. Lancaster was also critical of four Freedom of Information Act requests made by Biberaj on Feb. 7.
The requests seek all “comments and complaints” about the commonwealth’s attorney’s office between members of the Board of Supervisors and local reporters between June 1, 2019 and Feb. 5, 2023. Lancaster noted the county has already been swamped with FOIA requests and said fulfilling Biberaj’s requests could be burdensome.
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors member Kristen Umstattd, D-Leesburg, also criticized the requests. Umstattd, who has endorsed Lancaster, said some of the requests were campaign related and the county should be reimbursed for the costs.
“According to county staff, you had a conversation with a staff member, in which you stated that your intent was to file the FOIA requests as a private citizen,” Umstaddt wrote in a Feb. 12 email to Biberaj. “As two of your requests at least appear to be personal or political, and are clearly not related to your official duties as commonwealth’s attorney, or the duties of your office, I believe that you would have been better served to have used non-governmental resources to prepare and transmit your requests.”
Biberaj said at the announcement that the requests were lawful and were in response to false allegations and leaks from the board about her office. She said there are currently three unfilled positions in her office. The office has 54 total positions, including about 35 prosecutors and a $7 million annual budget. In late 2022, annual starting salaries for new prosecutors increased from about $59,000 to $75,000 which Biberaj said will make it easier to recruit and retain staff.
From 2004-2019, Plowman was commonwealth’s attorney before being named a 20th Circuit Judge. Biberaj said much of the turnover is due to the office’s conservative approach under Plowman compared to her liberal approach.
“I took the job to make transformative change,” she said. “And to change the culture, you have to change the people.”
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