- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia’s commonwealth’s attorneys ran unopposed in nearly three-quarters of elections over the past 10 years, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which says the lack of competitive races means prosecutors’ broad powers are often going unchecked.

The ACLU looked at every commonwealth’s attorney election held between 2005 and 2015. Of the 381 total races during that period, 72 percent of them were uncontested, the group said. Forty percent of Virginia’s 120 localities with commonwealth’s attorneys didn’t have a single contested race over that decade, according to the report.

“With relatively few checks on their authority and the ability to lobby aggressively for changes to laws they don’t like, (commonwealth’s attorneys) have unparalleled power over Virginia’s criminal justice system,” the report said.

Commonwealth’s attorneys are the top prosecutor in a city or county and bring charges against defendants, negotiate plea deals and try cases on behalf of the state. They’re elected every four years in elections when no other state or federal races are on the ballot, significantly depressing voter turnout, the ACLU says.

One in six of Virginia’s top prosecutors have held that office for more than two decades, and several others have been in power for more than 40 years, according to the report.

Prosecutors pushed back against the idea that the absence of contested elections means their powers go unchecked, saying they remain accountable to the people.

“It’s a political process, and we don’t really have any control over whether someone opposes us in an election, and we don’t have control over when those elections are held,” said Fredericksburg Commonwealth’s Attorney La Bravia Jenkins, president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys.

Eric Olsen, the commonwealth’s attorney in Stafford County, said he believes the scarcity of contested elections means citizens are largely satisfied with the way Virginia’s criminal justice system is being run.

“In the end, we’re answerable to our citizens, and if they are satisfied with what we’re doing, they’re going to vote us into office,” Olsen said.

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer .

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