Commonwealth’s attorney candidates spar over rising crime, partnering with police, criminal justice reform

Incumbent Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth and her Republican opponent, Matt Lowery, sparred Friday night over the rising crime rate, partnering with law enforcement and criminal justice reform during a sometimes heated hourlong debate in Manassas. 

The candidates, both 52, answered a series of questions from moderator Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor and director of the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies. The forum was hosted by the Prince William Committee of 100 and held at Grace E. Metz Middle School. 

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Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth (D) shakes hands with her Republican challenger, Matt Lowery, during an Aug. 25 debate in Manassas.

On the crime rate 

Right off the bat, Lowery, a criminal defense attorney who has been a vocal critic of the county’s crime rate, blasted Ashworth for what he called a “giant crime spike” and blamed Ashworth’s prosecution policies for crime that’s “out of control.”  

“We have a 26% increase in crime overall. We have a 70% increase in violent crime,” Lowery said. “There is no explanation for that other than there’s been a change in respect for law enforcement; there’s been a change in the office of the commonwealth’s attorney; and there’s … no external factor to explain that other than those changes.”  

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Matt Lowery, the Republican nominee for Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney, smiles and waves to the audience during the Aug. 25 debate.

Ashworth responded with a twopronged retortsaying Lowery’s statistics were inaccurate and that in any event, she doesn’t control the crime rate. 

“Prince William County, according to (police) Chief (Peter) Newsham, is ‘very, very safe to live in,’” Ashworth said. “We have a very low crime rate for our population size. We are 10 percentage points below the state average. And when you compare it to other jurisdictions of the same size. It is quite low.”  

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Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth (D) speaks during an Aug. 25 debate with challenger Matt Lowery in Manassas. 

“My opponent has screamed over and over again, ‘there’s a 70% increase in violent crime,’” Ashworth said. “Violent crime is 9% of the total crime in Prince William County. And even Chief Newsham referred to that twist of the statistic as ‘a salacious misrepresentation of the data.’” 

“The crime rate is a statistical measurement of crimes per capita,” Ashworth added. “It is not anything that the office of the commonwealth attorney controls. If we did, we would stop it. If you elect Mr. Lowery, crimes aren’t going to suddenly stop.” 

Violent crimes reported in Prince William County were up about 23% from 2021 to 2022, but the crime rate, at 37.7 incidents per 1,000 residents, remains below the Virginia average and only slightly above where it was in 2018.

The crime rate dropped about 5 points in 2020, to 30.6 incidents per 1,000 residents, during the pandemic. It has been steadily rising since then to 32.9 incidents per 1,000 residents in 2021 and 37.7 incidents per 1,000 residents in 2022.

Prince William County crime rate over the past five years

The Prince William County crime rate, defined as incidents of crime per 1,000 people, over the past five years.

On partnering with law enforcement 

Lowery, who styled himself as the pro-police candidate, charged that Ashworth’s office had “departnered” from law enforcement and accused her office of “denigrating the police.” 

He said that if elected he would rebuild trust between the top prosecutor’s office and law enforcement.  

“We need to immediately re-partner the commonwealth’s attorney’s office with the police agencies,” Lowery said. “Stop treating the cops like they’re bad guys.” 

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Matt Lowery (R), a criminal defense attorney challenging incumbent Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth (D), speaks during an Aug. 25 debate sponsored by the Prince William County Committee of 100.

“Nobody in my office denigrates the police department or the police officers that we work with,” Ashworth shot back. “We have a great deal of respect for our law enforcement officers, and we show it every day when we work with them.” 

“We have phenomenal police officers that do good work. Bring us good strong cases and we can prosecute them. That’s our function,” Ashworth said. 

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Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth (D) listens to her opponent during an Aug. 25 debate in Manassas sponsored by the Prince William County Committee of 100.

But Lowery continued, charging that he believes police officers don’t feel supported and have concerns that their cases won’t be prosecuted by Ashworth’s office.  

“If you listen to people on the street, no one is afraid of court right now,” Lowery said. “Talk to the police that are supposed to be doing patrol, they don’t patrol anymore because they know when they come to court, their cases aren’t going to get prosecuted.” 

“That’s just absurd!” Ashworth shot back. “It’s absurd to sit here and tell you that the police don’t patrol and do their jobs. They do their jobs, they come to court, and we prosecute them. And he knows it because he’s a criminal defense attorney that walks into the courtroom every day.”   

Lowery also touted his endorsement by the Prince William County Police Association. “It’s because they know that I know how to operate with them hand-in-hand to work for the benefit of everybody.” 

Ashworth emphasized her support for police but also said as top prosecutor, she must recognize the need for accountability, adding: “I will always hold everybody accountable whether it’s the police or it’s criminals, everybody must follow the rules.”  

On criminal justice reform 

One of the few topics on which both candidates seemed to agree was the elimination of cash bond. “I got elected in 2019 because people in this community were sick of the way things were being handled in the criminal justice system,” Ashworth said. “We did away with cash bond because it was a punishment for people who were poor.” 

Lowery said eliminating cash bond was “a successful story of a criminal justice reform that worked.” 

Ashworth said she’s “in support of any criminal justice reform that makes our system fair and more just for everyone.” 

Lowery said he disagrees with criminal justice reform when it involves the “fight against mass incarceration.” 

“The idea of emptying prisons, emptying jails, and not incarcerating people as they come through has caused a bunch of people who are supposed to be incarcerated to be out committing more and more crimes,” Lowery said. “I think that’s contributing directly to the spike in crime that’s going on because we’re not addressing the crime that’s happening every day.”  

Ashworth said that as commonwealth’s attorney and a member of the jail board she sees firsthand that people are being incarcerated after being found guilty of crime. 

“When I took office, I became a member of the jail board, and they had just expanded the jail so we could put more and more people in there. The trend was just going up and up and up,” Ashworth said. “People were being incarcerated for petty larceny. People were being incarcerated for driving without an operator’s license or driving on a suspended operator’s license.” 

Ashworth said that the number of incarcerated people dropped as a result of the pandemic.

“The numbers, after COVID happened, came down, and everyone screamed and yelled, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so terrible,’ when there’s been no real impact,” Ashworth said.The jail numbers have maintained steadiness. There is mass incarceration.” 

Early voting starts on Friday, Sept. 22 and Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. 


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