Pennsylvania Primaries Are a Week Away

Also today: What is sheriffs' role toward the opioid crisis?


In This Edition of the Political Report

May 16, 2019: Pennsylvanians head to the polls on Tuesday to vote in local elections, including primaries for district attorney and sheriff. I previewed the state’s DA races in March. Today I delve into two of Tuesday’s primaries:

  • Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh’s DA race showcases ‘fundamental disagreement’

  • Pennsylvania: Foreclosures and ICE are on the menu in Philadelphia’s sheriff election

  • The Badge: Our series on the powers of sheriffs examines the opioid crisis

  • Legislative roundup: Colorado requires free tampons in jails and restricts pretrial detention; Louisiana moves against incarcerating witness; and more

Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh’s DA race showcases ‘fundamental disagreement’

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his re-election race was marked by a “fundamental disagreement as to what the office of the district attorney is supposed to be.” That much is indisputable.

Tuesday’s Democratic primary has become a showcase of the political fault lines that are fueling different approaches to the role of prosecutor today. It opposes Zappala to Turahn Jenkins, the county’s former chief public defender and a former assistant DA. (The winner will face no Republican in the general election because none filed to run, but candidates outside the two main parties could still file up until August.)

According to Zappala, what’s at stake in this disagreement is whose side a DA is on. “Socialists focus on the rights of the accused,” he said. (The Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America have recommended voting for Jenkins.) “There’s no consideration for victims’ rights. They don’t consider public safety. They don’t consider input from the police. … I’m not running for public defender. I represent the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

What stands out in Zappala’s statement is the very premise that there is an easy split between defendants’ rights and victims’ rights, and that a DA must pick one or the other.

Given Pennsylvania’s sky-high incarceration rates and the racial disparities in the county’s legal system, this split obscures the role that DAs play in shaping the livelihood of entire communities, and it downplays just how many lives DAs impact based on how they use their tremendous discretion. Not to mention, the line between victim and accused is just not that self-evident.

The outlook that Jenkins has laid out during the campaign is instead that the legal system as a whole is not functioning, and that this affects a broad swath of residents. “I’m finding that no matter where I go, there’s someone who has been adversely affected by the criminal justice system,” he told the Pittsburgh Current. He called this system a “black hole.” “It’s really easy to fall into it and very difficult to get out,” he said.

This competing perspective is that many of the individuals who comprise “the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” are harmed rather than represented by its legal system.

The Appeal has documented that Allegheny County’s legal system disproportionately targets African Americans. More than 80 percent of the minors who were charged as adults by Zappala’s office in 2016 and 2017 were Black, for instance, even though about 20 percent of the county’s 14- to 17-year-olds are Black.

I asked Zappala’s campaign how he explains these disparities, and whether he would change his practices to reduce them. Zappala answered in an email via a spokesperson that racial disparities are “catalyzed” by problems like poverty, and a lack of affordable housing or healthcare, which “disproportionately afflict the black community,” and which exceed what DAs can affect. The “criminal justice system… plays its part in weaving the blanket of racial bias,” he said, but “is merely one part of a vast and flawed complex adaptive system.” His response only mentioned two specific policies, first that he would “continue to advocate” for diversionary courts, and second that racial bias can be alleviated by changing how judges instruct juries.

Zappala has also said elsewhere that there is only so much his office can do, and that the responsibility for disparities in the criminal legal system is diluted. “The criminal justice system can’t fix this—not by ourselves,” he told the Post-Gazette.

But Zappala does wield influence at the statewide level. He is a member of the executive committee of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), which lobbies for legislative change in the name of the state’s prosecutors and typically uses its sway to ask for more punitive policies. Jenkins told me in December that, if elected DA, he may withdraw from the PDAA because their “views and policies” are “partly responsible for many of the issues that plague our criminal justice system.”

Besides intervening in legislative debates, DAs also have ample discretion to overhaul intracounty practices.

In a Political Report interview in April, Joshua Vaughn pressed Jenkins on how he would change county policies if elected. “I think we need to shift our efforts to restoring people, not punishing them,” Jenkins said. He stated his opposition to the death penalty (which Zappala has sought), and his support for making it harder to try minors as adults. He also said he wanted to reduce arrests for low-level offenses such as marijuana possession by diverting cases “before they enter the criminal justice system.”

Jenkins stopped short of supporting some important reform paths. He said he was open to prosecuting some overdose cases as homicides, a punitive approach to which Zappala and other Pennsylvania DAs have turned in response to the opioid crisis. Also, he indicated no plans to simply drop some types of cases (as opposed to expecting people to complete diversionary steps). Other prosecutors have implemented that bolder move.

In 2018, shortly after announcing his candidacy, Jenkins told community members that being gay or trans was a “sin,” which immediately frayed his relationship with local activists. Jenkins later apologized, and the Current reported in April that he had repeatedly met with LGBTQ rights advocates and rebuilt some of those ties. Pittsburgh DSA addressed this dynamic at some length in its recommendation.

Another issue that has unfolded during this campaign is Zappala’s prosecution of police officer Michael Rosfeld, who shot and killed Antwon Rose II in June. Rosfeld was acquitted in March, and Jenkins has criticized Zappala’s handling of the case. Zappala has long faced protests over his handling of cases involving police. The Post-Gazette found in June that Zappala had brought no charge in 18 of 22 police homicide cases over his tenure. Jenkins told the Political Report that the DA’s office should “perhaps” have referred more such cases to the attorney general.

Given the scale of the candidates’ disagreements, you would be forgiven for assuming that Pittsburgh’s DA elections have historically been hotly contested. But Jenkins is Zappala’s first opponent since 1999. Zappala faced no challenger in four consecutive re-election bids—not in 2003, not in 2007, not in 2011, and not in 2015.

The full, standalone version of this article is available here.

Pennsylvania: Foreclosures and ICE are on the menu in Philadelphia’s sheriff election

The authority of the Philadelphia sheriff is circumscribed. The office doesn’t manage county jails, for instance, unlike in much of the country. But its powers—mainly, guarding courthouses and running the sales of foreclosed properties—nevertheless have important ramifications for immigrants and for the city’s economic health.

Sheriff Jewell Williams faces three opponents in his bid for a third term in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. They are Rochelle Bilal, a former police officer and president of the Guardian Civic League, the local chapter of the National Black Police Association, as well as Larry King Sr. and Malika Rahman, who are both former sheriff’s deputies.

The campaign is taking place against the backdrop of three sexual harassment lawsuits filed against Williams, who has denied wrongdoing. Two have been settled; a third is still pending.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party initially recommended endorsing Williams but promptly revoked this recommendation in April. Williams has the support of local unions, however. John McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, has suggested that Bilal’s past support for District Attorney Larry Krasner had cost her support among law enforcement officers.

“She has some loyalty from people who don’t really help our officers,” McNesby told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Krasner has headlined fundraising efforts for Bilal this year.

Two policy areas are on the menu. Some candidates have argued that the sheriff’s office should do more to assist people whose properties are foreclosed. Another focal point is ICE’s presence inside and outside courthouses, especially in light of a reported case of an ICE agent trying to find a defendant in March.

The full article, available here, details the election’s contrasts on foreclosures and ICE.

The Badge: Our series on the powers of sheriffs examines the opioid crisis

Sheriffs shape jail conditions and enjoy great discretion on matters ranging from immigration to solitary confinement, but their authority and decisions are often overlooked. The Badge is an Appeal: Political Report series that examines the power and roles of sheriffs. This second installment, by Jessica Pishko, is on the opioid crisis.

Read “The Opioid Crisis and the Elected Sheriff” here. Below is its beginning.

Madison Jody Jensen was arrested for drug possession in 2016 and booked into the jail run by the Duchesne County Sheriff’s Department in Utah. As The Appeal has reported, she went through withdrawal in her cell, vomiting and defecating on herself, but she was denied the medical care she requested. She was later found dead from dehydration as a result of withdrawal.

Deaths like Jensen’s are not uncommon. As of 2017, Utah had the highest number of jail deaths per capita; it also has a serious opioid crisis, which mirrors a nationwide problem. One estimate shows that of the 10 million people processed through jails every year, approximately a quarter have opioid use disorder.

Jails are particularly dangerous places for people with opioid addiction. They put people who are on successful treatment regimens outside jail at risk for relapse, and they can provoke dangerous withdrawal symptoms, especially in light of the frequently inadequate access to medical care. People are in greater danger of overdosing and dying after incarceration.

While the legal system may not be the best place to address addiction as a health problem, the fact that users are being arrested, and that many still lack health insurance or access to community programs, makes treatment in jails essential to preventing serious and even deadly issues. Medical studies show that people treated while incarcerated are less likely to overdose after their release. But this also forces the issues of rethinking law enforcement attitudes toward substance use, and expanding access to alternative avenues to treatment.

As a result, sheriffs—as elected officials who control treatment in jails, shape law enforcement practices outside them, and influence broader local debates—are on the frontlines of the opioid crisis.



Legislative roundup: Colorado requires free tampons in jails, restricts pretrial detention; Louisiana moves against incarcerating witness; and more

Colorado: Local jails will now need to provide free menstrual hygiene products to people in custody. A new law, sponsored by lawmakers Leslie Herod and Faith Winter, extends a mandate that already existed in state prisons. According to 9News, the catalyst for this reform was Elisabeth Epps, an activist with the Denver Justice Project, who has talked about the difficulties she had experienced getting such products while she was detained in jail for interfering with police.

Colorado: Epps also plays a central role in state organizing against cash bail—and the state just moved on this issue too: A new law will prohibit the use of money bail in petty offense cases and most traffic offense cases. That is a modest reform compared to changes adopted elsewhere, though the legislature also passed a separate bill (the governor has yet to sign it) that requires bond hearings within 48 hours of arrests, rather than letting people languish in jail for longer.

Louisiana: Louisiana DAs put victims in jail to compel them to testify in criminal proceedings. The Senate adopted legislation in May to restrict the use of such “material witness warrants” against victims of sexual offenses and domestic violence. The reform was narrowed along the way. The original bill barred jailing such people entirely; but the bill that passed was amended on the Senate floor and only prohibits it in misdemeanor cases. In felony cases, jailing victims is restricted, but not barred. The head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association testified against the original version in committee.

Louisiana: On Tuesday, a House committee advanced to the floor a bill abolishing the death penalty. A Senate committee advanced another abolition bill in April, but it was rejected on the Senate floor last week. Louisiana is one of six states where abolition has taken at least one legislative step this year.

New Hampshire: Governor John Sununu vetoed legislation abolishing the death penalty, as he had already done in 2018. But this year the bill passed both chambers with veto-proof majorities, so its proponents should be able to override Sununu’s veto unless lawmakers change their votes.

You can visit our legislative roundup page for more on legislative developments.

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