Candidates for Allegheny County District Attorney spar in sole debate – Pennsylvania Capital-Star
PITTSBURGH — The candidates for Allegheny County District Attorney dispensed with the pleasantries early on during a Thursday night debate, with each taking shots at the other’s policy ideas and record in office.
It was the only debate where Allegheny County chief public defender Matt Dugan, the Democrats’ nominee, and incumbent Stephen Zappala the Republicans’ nominee, will meet ahead of the November election. Zappala, who has held the post for 25 years, leaned in to his experience as an asset, but repeatedly said “I’m not a politician.” Dugan tried to create an image of a DA’s office in disarray, and outlined what changes he would make if elected to the job.
“In the legal profession, you make choices as to what you want to specialize in. Obviously, Mr. Dugan has chosen to specialize in the representation of people accused of crimes,” Zappala said. “It doesn’t give you any insight into the criminal justice system,” which he said was a “living breathing thing that changes all the time.”
Dugan said as the county’s chief public defender, he had worked “with every stakeholder in the justice system from the head of probation to the president judge to the county executive. I understand this, this criminal justice system as well as anyone,” he said. “I’ve been representing clients for more than a decade in this criminal justice system, seeing how it fails people on a daily basis. I’m ready to take over.”
The candidates took questions from moderator Ken Rice, politics editor Jon Delano, and director of community impact Lisa Smith, all of KDKA-TV, and Lori Moran, president of the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce.
Smith asked the candidates if there was systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
“There are stark racial disparities within our criminal justice system,” Dugan said. “As district attorney the first thing I would do is acknowledge that yes, racial disparity exists in our system.”
He said his office had participated in a study with the county executive’s office to study racial disparities in the system, working with the former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, a former U.S. attorney, and the Allegheny County president judge.
“The only stakeholder who was absent from that was Mr. Zappala,” Dugan added. “So when those results are released, we will make sure that every decision we make understands that there could be an impact on racial disparity and the decisions we make as district attorney will make sure that we’re not exacerbating those disparities.”
Zappala replied that “overwhelmingly, the victims of those crimes are from the minority community. There’s nobody that’s done more in terms of addressing those types of issues than I have in terms of victims’ rights.” He added that the county’s criminal justice system is a “righteous” process.
Republican, Democrat or progressive?
Asked by Delano if he was a Democrat or a Republican, Zappala called himself a “law-and-order Democrat.” Even though he is the Republican nominee, Zappala said he is a registered Democrat and has not been asked to change his party affiliation.
“I don’t spend my time talking to the media. I spend my time talking to [the] government. I spend my time talking to children. I spend my time talking to educators in the schools, and all these people, they’re the ones that make a difference in our lives,” Zappala said.
Delano asked Dugan what it means to be a “progressive” district attorney. “We see everyday low-level offenders come into our system, and we cycle them through with guilty plea after guilty plea without ever thinking about the core drivers of what brings these low-level nonviolent offenders into the system,” Dugan said.
He added he would think differently about how those kinds of cases are handled. “If we can get to the root causes such as substance abuse, mental health issues, instability due to poverty, and we can get people help and early intervention, we can reduce the time people spend coming back to our system,” Dugan said, and in turn, the DA’s office would get better at prosecuting violent crime “competently and aggressively.”
On the topic of cash bail, Zappala said the concept was brought to his attention “in the context that it was being used politically” and portrayed as discrimination against poor people.
“What we did is we ensured that the courts have to consider someone’s financial means, they have to consider whether or not they’re taking care of a family, they’re taking care of children, they have obligations to the community, those types of things,” Zappala said. “I’ve got no interest in seeing somebody in a low-level situation being incarcerated,” he said, adding “That’s never been a problem in Allegheny County. It’s not a problem now.”
Dugan disagreed. “Cash bail for low-level offenders has been a problem in Allegheny County under Steve Zappala,” he said. “That’s why I started the bail project from the public defender’s office to make sure that low-level nonviolent offenders weren’t sitting in jail simply because they can’t afford to be released.” He added that if someone was a danger to society, they should not be eligible for cash bail: “If someone poses a risk to public safety, we shouldn’t be asking about how much money is in their bank account. We should be denying the opportunity for release altogether.”
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Zappala has faced criticism for not holding regular briefings. Rice asked Dugan how he would increase the transparency of the DA’s office and share more information about prosecutions and criminal justice recommendations.
“First and foremost, we want to have a group of community members from across the county representing all the different parts of our area, community advisory members so that we can make sure that when we’re rolling out new policies, or we’re bringing new initiatives to the county that they’re having the intended impact on on the communities,” Dugan said. “We understand that part of job of a politician is to make sure that they are available to the public. We have not seen that under this administration.”
Zappala repeated that he was not a politician, and said that information was made available to the media. “I can’t make myself available because I can’t speak intelligently about issues unless I’ve been briefed by a number of people and some of these situations that the media’s interested in are very complicated,” he said. “As long as our cases are being handled properly, and the dispositions by the way, are overwhelmingly the correct dispositions of a case, then I’m satisfied with the way that the matters are being handled.”
In rebuttal, Dugan said that the lack of visibility was a problem. “We’ve seen several cases over the year where Mr. Zappala just doesn’t want to make a decision because it’s maybe not politically expedien for him. It’s difficult. He doesn’t know the answer. We don’t know, but the public deserves to know.”
Zappala countered that especially in investigations involving police use-of-force, such matters take time. “It’s thorough, it’s thoughtful. It’s a methodical process.”
Dugan said if elected district attorney he would create a conviction integrity unit, which Zappala mocked. “How’s that conviction integrity working out for Philadelphia? It doesn’t seem to work at all,” he said.
Dugan replied that the conviction integrity unit in Philadelphia had “exonerated over 30 people — 30 people who were convicted of crimes that they did not commit. We absolutely need it, especially after 24 years of having the same district attorney with the same blinders on.”
Election Day is Nov. 7.
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Kim Lyons