Pittsburgh’s Punitive DA Wins Primary. Reformer Ousts the Philly Sheriff.

Also today: Montana, North Dakota, and Washington State adopt reforms.


In This Edition of the Political Report

May 23, 2019:

  • Pennsylvania: Rochelle Bilal ousts Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams

  • Pennsylvania: Stephen Zappala wins, alongside five other DAs who faced a primary

  • Virginia: Prince William County candidate argues for diverting, not declining, low-level cases

  • Washington: State restricts juvenile detention, amends three strikes, ends prison gerrymandering

  • Legislative roundup: Montana will stop suspending driver’s licenses over fines and fees, North Dakota reduces marijuana penalties

For more on this year’s local elections for prosecutor and sheriff, you can visit our elections portal.

Pennsylvania: Rochelle Bilal ousts Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams

Philadelphia is sure to have a new sheriff next year. Rochelle Bilal handily ousted incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. She is a former police officer and president of the Guardian Civic League, an association that represents Black police officers.

As head of the League, Bilal endorsed Larry Krasner’s successful bid for district attorney in 2017. The president of the local police union (Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5) tried to use that endorsement against Bilal this year. But Krasner and Bilal have maintained their ties. Krasner headlined fundraising efforts for Bilal, while Bilal told the Philadelphia Tribune that she would be a “partner” of the “reform effort which is presently active in Philadelphia,” including Krasner’s “efforts to change items such as cash bail and sentencing guidelines.”

Bilal is likely to win November’s general election in this heavily Democratic city. She will face no Republican opponent, though independent and third-party candidates can file to run until August.

The powers of the Philadelphia sheriff are circumscribed, but I wrote in my preview of the race last week that one issue rose to the fore: The sheriff is in charge of selling foreclosed property, and local housing advocates have denounced the pace of these sales. Nikil Saval, an organizer with the left-leaning group Reclaim Philadelphia, told me that a sheriff should help shift from a “culture that favors punishment” to one “that values keeping people in their home.”

Bilal told me last week that she would shift the focus of the office from managing sales to fighting foreclosures. She said she would “put less money in advertising and selling homes” and “more money into foreclosure prevention and community education,” with goals of linking people to legal assistance and establishing a “consumer protection division” to investigate complaints. And she sees a connection between confronting foreclosures and criminal justice reform. “Due to the trauma foreclosures cause to families because of the housing instability, it could potentially lead to more people being involved in criminal activities,” she said.

Pennsylvania: Stephen Zappala wins, alongside five other DAs who faced a primary

Seven DAs faced a challenger in Pennsylvania’s primaries on Tuesday. All prevailed except the incumbent in the state’s smallest county.

Nearly all of them face no major-party opposition in November’s general election, though independent and third-party candidates can still file to run until August. As such, they are close to securing new four-year terms, having won primaries with often diminished media visibility and low turnout.

The Political Report has updated its masterlist of Pennsylvania’s 2019 DA elections with the results of all 15 primaries that took place this week. Besides the seven counties where DAs faced direct challenges, there were eight primaries that featured no incumbent. I will return to some of these eight, as well as to the counties that will feature contested elections in November.

For now, let’s review the major takeaways of the seven primaries that involved incumbent DAs.

Stephen Zappala survives challenge in Allegheny County: Zappala defeated Turahn Jenkins, the first opponent he faced since 1999. Jenkins did better in the city of Pittsburgh, but Zappala won suburban areas by overwhelming margins. As I wrote in my preview last week, the county’s legal system is marked by stark racial disparities, and this primary was marked by significant disagreements. Zappala positioned himself against the “philosophy” of “socialists and the ACLU.” Jenkins called the criminal legal system a “black hole,” and ran on a slate of reform proposals.

As a result, the state’s second-largest county will most likely remain in the PDAA. One question going into these elections was whether Krasner’s reform efforts would gain an intrastate ally. In December, he quit the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), which often lobbies for punitive policies in the state capital. Jenkins, Allegheny’s losing candidate, told me at the time that he might withdraw from the PDAA if elected.

Cumberland County DA Skip Ebert wins primary. Ebert easily defeated Jaime Keating, a former assistant DA, in the GOP primary. Both ran by highlighting their punitive credentials. Since taking office, Ebert has made aggressive use of statutes that allow for prosecuting overdoses as homicides; he said that he would step up these charges if re-elected. Keating also touted his support for such charges, which public health advocates denounce as harmful. Ebert faces Democrat Sean Quinlan in November.

Cameron County ousts its DA. In the state’s smallest jurisdiction, Paul Malizia defeated DA Jeanne Miglicio (who narrowly ousted Malizia in 2015) in the GOP primary. Four other incumbents easily won GOP primaries. They are Huntingdon’s Dave Smith, McKean’s Stephanie Vettenburg-Shaffer, Mercer’s Pete Acker, and Susquehanna’s Marion O’Malley; none will face a Democratic opponent in November

A standalone version of this article is available here.



Virginia: Prince William County candidate argues for diverting, not declining, low-level cases

The prosecutorial election of Prince William, a populous county in Northern Virginia, is up for grabs for the first time in decades. Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, a Democrat whose office is known for its frequent pursuit of the death penalty, for misconduct findings, and for harsh prosecutorial practices, is retiring after 51 years in office. Amy Ashworth and Tracey Lenox are running to replace him in the June 11 Democratic primary.

This week, I talked to Lenox, who works as a criminal defense attorney, about her politics. She described “criminal justice reform” (making “a significant change in the way Prince William handles equal justice issues and justice reform”) as an impetus behind her candidacy, and I asked for details about what this change would mean. She said she would “divert or dismiss” most “nonvictim misdemeanor charges,” including possessing marijuana and driving with a suspended license. It “doesn’t make sense” to “convict people of offenses like that,” she said. She also discussed wanting to set up a restorative justice program and open file discovery, and she explained that the death penalty is used inequitably, but she did not rule out seeking it. I also asked how her emphasis on reform fits with the endorsement she received from Ebert. You can read the full interview here. Below is a lightly edited excerpt.

Are there specific offenses that you would altogether decline to prosecute, or for which you would expand diversion programs that don’t rely on filing charges or obtaining convictions?

Absolutely. Super easy ones: driving on suspended, first-offense shoplifting, possession of marijuana. Disorderly conduct is another one that is utilized in a very destructive way. So the majority of nonvictim misdemeanor charges. … Almost any Class 1 misdemeanor that is not a crime of violence or that doesn’t have a victim involved in it, I would be seeking ways to divert and dismiss. We have proof that people who have been tagged with conviction have a very difficult time getting jobs, going back home and supporting their family, and being productive members of their community. We also know data-wise that it doesn’t cause less recidivism, it doesn’t make a community safer to convict people of offenses like this. It doesn’t make sense from a public safety standpoint. It really undermines communities more than anything else to be seeking convictions for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.

Could you walk me through how you’re thinking about diversion versus declination in these cases? For the offenses you listed, would you want to use a diversion program, or would you be open to dropping the charges altogether?

Prosecutors have enormous power. We can make a lot of decisions that are going to reduce the mass incarceration that we have right now. … But if you unilaterally make decisions that do not incorporate the other stakeholders and players in the legal justice system, you can get a backlash. Look at what’s happening in Norfolk, where the judges are rebelling against a unilateral “we aren’t going to prosecute marijuana charges.” That doesn’t help the defendant to do that. If you go in and null pross without having gotten some buy-in from the judges that you have to go in front of every day, you aren’t going to be able to accomplish what you’re setting to do, which is making sure that people don’t have convictions, and have a second chance. Instead, diversion is the easier project, because then you can give the judges something to hang their hat on.

The full interview with Tracey Lenox is available here. We will publish an interview with Amy Ashworth, Lenox’s primary opponent, next week.

Washington: State restricts juvenile detention, scales back three strikes, ends prison gerrymandering

Three bills pertaining to the criminal legal system became law in Olympia over the last month.

Detaining minors: Federal law restricts the detention of minors for noncriminal acts but it makes exceptions when such behavior violates a valid court order, and Washington aggressively uses this exception to incarcerate children. Charlotte West reported in The Appeal in March that the state leads the country—by far—in detaining minors for status offenses like skipping school and running away. “The fact that a child can go into detention for something that isn’t a crime is state-sanctioned trauma,” state Senator Jeannie Darneille told West.

Senate Bill 5290, sponsored by Darneille and signed into law this month, will change this. It will eliminate detention as a sanction for children who disobeyed truancy, and for at risk youth, children in need of services, and dependency petitions. But these restrictions will go into effect at a slower pace than the original bill proposed; they will be phased in between 2020 and 2023. Senator Manka Dhingra, a Democrat involved in negotiations over the bill, told me local judges had objected that to “protect children” they “had no other options other than locking them away.” She described the consequent delay as a way of ensuring the legislature allocates more resources so “children have access to therapeutic options” like early intervention services and therapeutic facilities.

The bill was championed by the Mockingbird Society, a group that focuses on improving foster care and that works with young people who face homelessness. Liz Trautman, director of public policy and advocacy, told me that her organization’s “goal is to take detention off the table so we can address the root causes of behavior like truancy or running away.” Calls for this reform emerged in Mockingbird’s conversations with directly affected young people. “Jail was not something that helped them,” Trautman said. It “either pushed them further in the criminal justice system or made them less willing to trust that the system was going to help them.”

Three strikes: Washington State amended its three-strikes statutes this year by adopting Senate Bill 5288. The law, also sponsored by Darneille, removes second-degree robbery from the list of offenses that can trigger a life without parole sentence.

The bill will not apply retroactively, however, and so the 62 people who are currently serving life without parole sentences in part due to a second-degree robbery conviction will get no relief. The Associated Press’s Tom James reports that the legislation was initially retroactive, but that this clause was removed in part because of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the group that lobbies on behalf of the state’s prosecutors.

I asked Dhingra about the decision to not make the clause retroactive. She said prosecutors objected that many sentences were the result of negotiated pleas and that they might have filed more serious charges had this reform been in place then. She also said many lawmakers “get nervous” about criminal justice reforms and want “buy-in” from prosecutors. “It really came down to making sure we had consensus, making sure other Democrats were comfortable, and not creating something we couldn’t handle,” she said. Dhingra’s proposal for bringing relief to these individuals is expanding post-conviction review.

Prison gerrymandering: Washington became the fifth state to end prison gerrymandering this week. A new law, also sponsored by Darneille, requires the state to count incarcerated people at their last known address for purposes of redistricting, as opposed to where their prison is located. Vaidya Gullapalli and I wrote on this legislation, and on how our counting practices dilute the power of communities of color and urban areas, two weeks ago.

A standalone version of this article is available here.

Legislative roundup: Montana will stop suspending driver’s licenses over fines and fees, North Dakota reduces marijuana penalties

Montana and Tennessee: Thanks to a new law the state adopted this month, Montana will stop suspending driver’s licenses over a failure to pay court fines and fees, a practice that can trigger mounting legal and economic hardships. (Virginia adopted a similar law in April, though only as a temporary reform.) Tennessee’s legislature has also passed a bill to restrict license suspensions, though, unlike Montana’s reform, Tennessee’s would apply only when a court determines that a person is too poor to pay or is making “reasonable” efforts to do so.

North Dakota: North Dakota reduced penalties for marijuana possession last month. In a step toward decriminalization, a new law eliminates the threat of jail for first-time offenders who possess under half an ounce. It reduces possession of a greater quantity from a felony to a misdemeanor. 

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