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By Jordana Rosenfeld
PITTSBURGH — As Allegheny County voters prepare to pick a new chief executive after 12 years of Rich Fitzgerald’s leadership, another county-wide leadership position on the ballot is, arguably, just as important, and the incumbent has held office for more than twice as long.
This year’s Democratic primary for District Attorney pits six-term incumbent Stephen Zappala against challenger Matt Dugan, the county’s Chief Public Defender. Although Zappala has handily beaten his last two challengers and, as private polling shows, may have an advantage typical of a long-time incumbent, Dugan is still in the game.
He’s garnered a number of endorsements from the Democratic establishment and progressive politicians and groups; commentators note Dugan has consolidated support from reform-minded groups more effectively than Zappala’s past challengers and may effectively harness popular frustration with a county legal system rife with racial disparity.
Zappala supporters, which include the North Hills GOP Committee (if he loses the Democratic nomination, Zappala is expected to run as a Republican in the general election), have characterized Dugan as a dangerously progressive prosecutor. But, according to reporting from TribLive, Dugan doesn’t identify as progressive.
One of the most significant deviations between Dugan and Zappala concerns the appropriate way to handle low-level, non-violent offenses, and what it means to “divert” someone from the criminal legal system. Diversion typically describes a path through which someone may exit the criminal legal system without a criminal conviction.
Why is it important to reduce the number of people in Allegheny County with criminal convictions?
A criminal conviction comes with a litany of sanctions that make it difficult or impossible for people to lawfully support themselves and their families.
A 2019 report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that “justice-involved people face more than 44,000 legal sanctions [nationwide] that can prevent them from getting a job, obtaining licenses, attaining and maintaining housing, qualifying for public assistance, pursuing higher education, engaging in civic participation, changing immigration status, and receiving custody of a minor, among many other restrictions.”
Research shows criminal convictions trap people in a cycle of multi-generational poverty, making future arrests more likely for both them and their children.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zappala was responsible for implementing the county’s first “special” or “problem-solving” courts aimed at addressing specific concerns such as repeated drug convictions, DUIs, and mental illness in a less punitive manner.
He has pointed to these courts when confronted with concerns that the county’s criminal legal system is unnecessarily punitive.
But Zappala’s critics have noted that his much-touted “problem-solving” courts don’t actually amount to “true diversion,” because they are only available to those who already have criminal records and are willing to plead guilty to criminal charges. This means that people who complete those courts leave with just as many barriers to employment, housing, and education as they had before.
The most recent analysis of Zappala’s prosecutorial decisions regarding low-level crimes by the criminal justice news site The Appeal, found that, in 2017, his office prosecuted more than 1,700 low-level drug possession cases.
Dugan has proposed a system of diversion that offers people a way to “end [low-level] matters without the lifelong consequence of criminal conviction.”
This could mean directing people accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes to treatment for mental illness or substance use disorder, anti-poverty resources, or towards other solutions that address the root causes of the offense in question without compromising eligibility for housing, employment, and social services.
Both candidates, along with a robust body of research, agree that crime is significantly linked to poverty. Although there have been periods of decline, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Allegheny County residents living in poverty is higher today than it was when Zappala took office in 1998.
In 2019, while facing his first progressive challenger in over 20 years, Zappala claimed the district attorney has little to do with preventing crime because the office does not administer anti-poverty programs.
“Crime has a direct correlation to poverty,” Zappala said. “I’m not in charge of transportation, safe and decent housing, or education. I’m on the back end of government.”
The DA may not be in charge of providing those services, but they, undoubtedly, influences who can receive them, in effect determining who in the county is eligible for help, and who has to fend for themselves.
Pittsburgh City Paper’s 2023 Primary Election Guide unpacks further distinctions between these candidates alongside all the Democratic contestants for county-wide office.
Jordana Rosenfeld is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.
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