DA Elections Take Shape in Pennsylvania, and Boston DA Announces New Reforms

Also today: The Political Report revisits efforts to reform rights restoration in Mississippi


In This Edition of the Political Report

March 28, 2019:

  • Pennsylvania: Stage is set for 2019 district attorney elections

  • Mississippi: What are the prospects for a referendum on rights restoration?

  • Massachusetts: Rachael Rollins reforms Boston’s prosecutorial practices

  • Legislative roundup: Two states move to protect immigrants, marijuana meets varying fates, Oklahoma tackles sentencing reform

You can also visit the Political Report’s page on criminal justice developments in state legislatures, featuring our interactive map.

Pennsylvania: Stage is set for the 2019 district attorney elections

Pennsylvania holds 49 district attorney elections this year. The state has the country’s second-highest rate of people under correctional control, and these elections provide opportunities for advocates of criminal justice reform to change that distinction. DAs enjoy direct discretion and indirect policy influence to shape the criminal legal system.

With the primaries looming in May, prospective candidates faced a March deadline to file as Democrats or Republicans. (Independents and third-party members can file until August.) The state provides no candidate database, an obstacle for these elections to get the attention they deserve. The Political Report has identified the candidates in 48 counties in this masterlist.

But only 23 of these 48 elections features more than one major-party candidate. This effectively means that many incumbents already look likely to coast to re-election, including some in populous counties like Montgomery and Luzerne. That said, this is a higher rate of contested elections than many states had in 2018—far higher, in fact, than in Mississippi this year.

Six of the 10 largest counties that are voting for DA this year will have contested elections.



The Political Report will preview these races throughout this year. Below is an initial overview.

Pittsburgh DA draws first opponent since 1999: Stephen Zappala has faced no challenger in his past four re-election bids in Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh. But Turahn Jenkins, then the county’s chief deputy public defender, announced in July that he would challenge Zappala in the Democratic primary, stating “our criminal justice system destroys people’s lives.” Zappala has long faced complaints over his handling of cases involving police officers, and over racial disparities in his office’s practices. Joshua Vaughn has reported in The Appeal that the majority of people charged with small-scale marijuana possession in the county are Black, and also that more than 80 percent of minors charged as adults by Zappala in 2016 and 2017 were Black.

The second-largest county to hold a contested election is Delaware County. Republican DA Katayoun Copeland will face Democrat Jack Stollsteimer, a deputy state treasurer involved in efforts to deprivatize a local prison as part of the Delco Coalition for Prison Reform.

Seven counties are sure to have a new DA: Incumbents are not running in seven counties. The largest is Northampton, where DA John Morganelli is known for his opposition to reform and hardline stances on immigration. The Political Report reviewed Morganelli’s record in January. Neither of the two Democrats who filed to replace him emphasized significant reforms in launching their candidacies, the Political Report found then.

Prosecuting overdoses as homicides: Many Pennsylvania DAs are responding to overdoses by charging the people who provided the drug with homicide: Death by drug delivery charges tripled between 2013 and 2018, according to a PennLive analysis. Public health advocates have denounced this approach as harmful. “There is little doubt that such charges allow prosecutors to score political points, but this is at enormous expense to the communities they serve,” Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, told me. He said that “every dollar spent on these failed punitive strategies is a dollar that could be spent on measures that work” such as “overdose prevention” and “improving access to treatment.” Two counties whose DAs have made aggressive use of this charge hold contested elections this year: Lancaster County’s Craig Stedman is retiring, so the county is sure to elect a new prosecutor, and Cumberland County’s Skip Ebert faces opponents in both the GOP primary and general election.

Will the PDAA lose more members? Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner took the atypical step of quitting the state’s district attorneys association (PDAA), denouncing as regressive the policies it advocates. Although he is not up for re-election this year, he has something riding: Will he acquire an ally in developing a prosecutorial vision that contrasts with the PDAA’s? Turahn Jenkins, for one, told the Political Report in December that if he were to win in Allegheny County he would quit the PDAA “unless the organization demonstrates a willingness to reconsider their policy positions.”

Uncontested elections strike again: The Appeal has reported that the office of Adams County DA Brian Sinnett seldom files rape charges, and it has documented Franklin County DA Matthew Fogal’s practice of aggressively prosecuting people for failing to make rental payments or for low-level drug cases. Sinnett and Fogal are up for re-election this year—but no one has filed to run against either of them.

A complete version of this article is available here.

Mississippi: What are the prospects for a referendum on rights restoration?

The success of Amendment 4, the 2018 initiative to expand voting rights in Florida, may have boosted efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement nationwide. But in Mississippi, Republican lawmakers were ultimately unmoved. The last of the rights restoration bills that was still standing in Mississippi’s legislative session died last week. This also killed the possibility that 2019 might bring legislative reform to a state that permanently disenfranchises nearly 10 percent of its voting-age population.

With the legislative path sidelined once more, what are the prospects and obstacles for the state to emulate Florida in pursuing a popular initiative?

The Political Report discussed this question with Mississippi advocates, who mentioned an arduous qualifying process and a lack of national attention and funding, among other factors. They also emphasized that they would support such an effort and believed it could succeed. “The will of the public is there, our lawmakers are just not paying attention to what the citizens want,” said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the Jackson-based civic engagement organization One Voice.

You can read the article on rights restoration in Mississippi on The Appeal: Political Report here.

Massachusetts: Rachael Rollins reforms Boston’s prosecutorial practices

Three months into her tenure as Suffolk County DA, Rachael Rollins issued a hefty memo that transforms her office’s prosecutorial practices based on a stated goal to “file fewer criminal charges, divert more people into services and treatment, send fewer people to jail and prison.”

The Political Report dug into some of Rollins’s announcements, though readers interested in its full scope of these reforms should read the memo:

  • Bail: The memo sets a presumption that all people should be released without conditions, and that this presumption can be overridden only with “clear evidence of a flight risk,” or, in certain cases, a dangerousness hearing. Berkshire County DA Andrea Harrington, who like Rollins was elected in November, implemented similar reforms in February.

  • Declinations: Rollins made a much-publicized campaign commitment to adopt a default policy of declining to prosecute 15 offenses, such as drug possession or trespassing. But since she took office, local advocates like CourtWatch MA have criticized her practices toward such cases as breaching her commitment. The memo tackles this in a lengthy appendix. It first reaffirms her presumption that “charges on the list of 15 should be declined or dismissed pre-arraignment without conditions.” It then lists other approaches to be employed in certain circumstances that the memo details for each category. These alternatives to declination range from optional meetings with a public health professional (in situations of substance use disorder) and restitution agreements (in larceny cases that don’t involve necessity) to diversion and also arraignment in some circumstances.

  • Drug policy: The memo allows no exception to the dismissal of marijuana cases. It only allows “public health alternatives outside of the justice system” for possession of drugs other than marijuana, and endorses safe needle exchange and supervised consumption sites. Rollins writes that one reason people are more receptive than in the past to “treatment and services rather than punishment” is that “the demographics of the impacted community have shifted. … The government, law enforcement, and the general public—possibly because the problem is now impacting them and their communities—suddenly have compassion and want to label this crisis the health issue it always has been.”

  • Youth justice: The memo announces no policy changes specific to young people. It states a general recognition that it is best for “teenagers and young adults” to “have as little contact with the criminal justice system as possible.”

  • Immigration: Some charges and sentences can trigger severe effects like deportation proceedings. Rollins instructs prosecutors to “factor into all charging and sentencing decisions the potential of immigration consequences.”

Of course, stated policies only go so far. The memo’s impact will hinge on its implementation, including how loosely and frequently the office invokes exceptions and carve-outs, and also how much deputy prosecutors comply with the spirit of these changes. Reached for their reaction to Rollins’s memo, Court Watch MA pointed me to a Twitter thread in which the group conveys praise and optimism, while also cautioning that the reforms now hinge on factors such as “training, oversight, follow-through.” “What are the consequences if lines ADAs do not follow the policy?” the group asks for instance.

A standalone version of this article is available here.

Legislative roundup: Two states move to protect immigrants, marijuana meets varying fates, Oklahoma tackles sentencing reform

Connecticut and New Jersey: Marijuana

Efforts to legalize marijuana in New Jersey derailed Monday, just hours before a scheduled vote, because of a lack of support in the Democratic Senate. Negotiations to legalize marijuana stalled in New York as well. But legalization took its first step in Connecticut. Connecticut and New Jersey bills include provisions that state advocates deem essential to social and racial justice. Connecticut’s contains provisions to boost ownership and employment in the marijuana industry for people in “communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and conviction.” New Jersey’s also contains measures to make the marijuana industry more diverse than elsewhere in the country, and it provides for expungement of marijuana-related convictions.

Florida: Marijuana

Florida made it illegal for medical marijuana to take a smokable form after a 2016 referendum legalized medical marijuana; Governor Rick Scott then defended the ban in court. But Florida’s new Governor Rick DeSantis announced a policy change in January. “Whether they have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?” he said. This month, the legislature adopted Senate Bill 182, which repeals the ban on smokable marijuana; DeSantis signed it into law.

Florida: Voting rights

Two bills, each restricting the right to vote in a different way, have moved forward one legislative step in recent days. Since Amendment 4’s implementation in January, people who have completed their sentence for felony convictions other than sexual offenses and murder have been able to register. But new legislation would shrink the pool of eligible voters by redefining what counts as murder and as a felony sexual offense. One such bill has passed a House subcommittee; another, a Senate committee. The House version also ties restoration of voting rights to repayment of court fines and fees, a measure that would impact lower-income Floridians’ ability to register to vote. An analysis by WLRN found that courts label the majority of fines and fees they impose as unlikely to be repaid because of the defendant’s financial ability.

Oklahoma: Sentencing reform

In 2016, Oklahomans approved State Question 780, which reduced drug possession and some theft offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor. But SQ 780 did not apply retroactively, which means it gave no relief to people already serving harsh sentences. This month, the state House approved legislation (House Bill 1269) that would remedy this by resentencing people who were already convicted of those offenses before SQ 780 was passed. The bill instructs state authorities to identify and resentence people convicted of drug possession, while those convicted of property crimes would still need to file a petition. At least 2,000 incarcerated people could see their detention shortened or gain immediate release, according to NPR. Many more who have already completed their sentence would have an easier time navigating matters like job applications. HB 1269 now goes to the Senate.

Utah and Colorado: Immigration

Utah adopted a new law Monday that cuts the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor by one day (from 365 to 364). This small change has big implications. Under federal law, noncitizens sentenced to at least one year of detention face deportation, so Utah’s change effectively shields noncitizens from facing such dire consequences based on a misdemeanor conviction. The bill was championed by the Refugee Justice League and Republican Representative Eric Hutchings.

Colorado may soon follow suit: The legislature passed a bill that reduces the maximum sentence associated with some misdemeanors and municipal violations to 364 days. (The highest class of misdemeanors would still carry longer sentences, however.) It awaits the governor’s signature. 

You can visit our legislative roundup page for more on states’ legislative debates.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!