Prince William Candidates for Commonwealth Attorney Differ on Immigration Policy

| September 16, 2019 | 0 Comments | News

Prince Willliam County League of Women Voters and Committee of 100 Commonwealth Attorney Debate at the Red Rose Ballroom in Manassas.

Candidates for Prince William County Commonwealth Attorney differ on one highly divisive issue: whether Prince William should continue its 287g Program regarding undocumented immigrants arrested in the county.

Amy Ashworth and Mike May faced off in a debate, Sept. 11 at the Red Rose Banquet and Event Center in Manassas at a debate organized by the Prince William League of Women Voters and Committee of 100. Both are nonpartisan organizations.

The candidates agreed on many issues central to the position, such as protecting victims and using limited prosecutorial discretion. However, they differed on the 287g immigration program, which may prove a deciding factor for voters.

According to 287g policy, the county would discover the immigration status of those it arrests. Individuals found to not be in the country legally are then handed over to ICE or other federal authorities.

Democratic Candidate for Commonwealth Attorney Amy Ashworth believes the policy harms the immigrant community in the county and has not been shown to decrease crime.

Her opponent, Republican Mike May, believes it helps to keep the community safe. He said action can be taken to mitigate disenfranchising the Latino and other immigrant communities and helping people to feel safe when turning to police.

The Commonwealth Attorney debate followed a school board chairman debate.

About the Candidates:

Attorney Amy Ashworth spent 19 years as a prosecutor and Assistant Commonwealth Attorney for Prince William County where she served in the Special Victim’s Unit. She prosecuted homicides, child physical and sexual abuse cases, rape and sexual assault and domestic abuse. Prior to 2005, Ashwork worked in private practice in Manassas.

Attorney and former supervisor Mike May is a trial lawyer handling criminal, civil and family law who tried cases at Circuit Court, General District Court and Federal Court. He is in private practice as the owner and managing partner at May Law, LLP. May is best known in Prince William County as Supervisor of the Occoquan District from 2007-2016. He is a past Chairman of the PRTC and served on the VRE Board.

Amy Ashworth and Mike May shake hands at the Sept. 11, 2019, Prince William Commonwealth Attorney debate.

Q: Should a commonwealth attorney threaten to charge a person with a higher penalty to persuade a person to plead guilty to a lesser crime?

AA “We should never be in the business of threatening a person with higher charges…those actions are not seeking justice.”

MM: “Not appropriate to threaten a higher charge.”

Q: According to some statics, opioid overdoses now kill more people than traffic accidents? What is the role of the prosecutor in addressing either community or treatment aspects?

MM: Involve treatment and provide community outreach. Work with the community service board to look at addiction as a disease.

AA: “Cannot imagine anything worse than losing a loved one to a drug overdose.” Utilize drug courts. Increase mental health options in the county. “There’s a reason why people are using drugs…a source of it.”

Q: What do you consider to be the role of prosecutorial discretion?

AA: My mission is “working for justice for everyone and doing it in a fair and equitable manner.” One cannot just decide to not follow the law; you enforce it. You must decide when it is appropriate to “show mercy or bring the hammer down.”

MM: Ultimately the prosecutor takes an oath to follow the law. Criminal justice reform does take discretions but you are “electing a commonwealth attorney, not electing a king or queen.” Appropriate criminal law is up to our elected officials. There is some room for some discretion.

Q: Should there be additional legislation for prosecuting a person when the crime involves a gun?

MM: There are appropriate laws in place, and we expect all of our prosecutors to use those tools. In violent crimes with firearms, “we will prosecute to the full extent possible.”

AA: Prosecutorial discretion does not really deter crime. It would be better to keep guns out of the hands of people who would commit crimes. Many of the murders you see in Prince William are due to domestic violence.

Q: Commonwealth Attorney Paul Ebert has put more people on death row than any other commonwealth attorney in the state. What is your position on the application of the death penalty?

AA: Death penalty is part of the law in Virginia. She would take an oath to obey the law and follow it as written.

Personally she is opposed because it is permanent and sometimes the criminal justice system just doesn’t get it right; it’s historically been more applied to people of color, and it costs more money than a life sentence. No study says it actually deters crime.

MM: He’d use it “extremely sparingly “for heinous crimes..so unspeakable” to protect the community. It is “nothing to celebrate.”

Q: How would you prosecute white-collar crimes such as embezzling and fraud? Are current practices adequate?

MM: He’d prosecute according to the law as is in any other case.

AA: “More of a focus on restitution and making sure the money gets paid back without necessarily incarcerating people for long periods of time for nonviolent crimes.”

Q: How would you prosecute hate crimes?

AA: “I have never backed done from a fight.” She would pursue those charges, even if it would not yield increase the punishment. ‘We’ve seen more hate rhetoric,’ and she wants people to know that Prince William County will not stand for it.

MM: It is a challenge but he would have the courage to bring those forward. “It’s not going to be tolerated.” He’s like to bring more diversity to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office by hiring nationally to attract the best and brightest.

Q: What is your position on working with immigration officials and federal authorities in reference to the 287G Program? Should Prince William become a sanctuary system?

MM: “I think the program makes sense. If you commit a crime in the community, go through the screening.” Illegal immigrants who commit crimes will not be returned to the community. But we also have to tell immigrant communities that they have nothing to fear. Ashworth’s office was not working so well in cooperation with the police chief to reach out to the Hispanic communities. Crime rates are going down.

AA: “The impact on our community being safe was negative…we created an entire class of people, namely immigrants, some legal some not legal, who were afraid to report crimes (even sexual assault against children.)” Additionally, it has cost the taxpayers millions. After screening the suspects never get their day in court.

Q: What is your response to systematic abuse by trusted community leaders such as priests, other religious leaders or teachers?

AA: I worked in the special victims unit. We made a lot of changes to made sure the victims felt safe. We’d train prosecutors to carefully handle these cases to make victims and witnesses feel safe.

MM: This is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and we will prosecute those crimes to the full extent, and make sure we continue to prosecute.

Q: Do you find cash payments for low-level crimes to be discriminatory?

MM: We do not want someone to stay in jail longer than their sentence because they cannot pay the bond. He supports a system to eliminate cash bail after an investigation into the matter, but would not just eliminate it outright upon taking office.

AA: When somebody gets arrested, they are brought in front of the magistrate and a bond is set. If you can pay outright, through a bail bond or a friend or family member, or you can stay out of jail. (Violent offenders and flight risks have to stay.)

“Many times this is discriminatory and poor people have to stay in jail when presumed innocent (for a nonviolent crime.)” She wants to change that.

Q: Would you staff a witness or victim advocate in the commonwealth attorney’s office?

AA: Yes, we do have a witness advocate office to stay in touch with the prosecutor. It adds comfort and is a “fabulous” program; we should utilize it even more.

MM: Yes, I think victims should have advocates. Mr. Ebert started this and I would continue this. “These folks help people during some of the most difficult times in their lives.”

CLOSING STATEMENTS:

Amy Ashworth: I am passionate about bringing criminal justice and keeping our families safe.

Ashworth believes she has the most experience and the most relevant experience for the position. “Murder, rape, burglary, I can try any one of those cases because I have been there and done that.”

“Open file discovery is a policy we need to enact immediately,” she said.“Police should have a responsive commonwealth attorney office that does not make them wait.”

Treating both victims and suspects fairly. “Victims deserve respect and dignity,” and “perpetrators rights need to be defended.”

The choice is between, “an experienced prosecutor vs. a politician. Experience matters”

Mike May: May said his opponent is branding herself as an advocate for reform when she did not lead reform during her tenure working with Mr. Ebert.

“You’ve heard a lot about experience, but she’s working in the commonwealth attorney’s office for 11 years, and, “she really didn’t do anything,” May said  Ashworth was “perfectly content” supporting the “good ole’ boy system.”

Most important for him, May said, is keeping the community safe, modernizing practices and improving the way the office interacts with community members, stakeholders, trial lawyers and elected leaders.

© 2019, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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