Panelists (from left to right) Lisa Freeland, Paul Jubas, Turahn Jenkins, Alyssa Snyder

On May 9, with less than two weeks to go before the first contested district attorney primary in Allegheny County in 20 years, ACLU-PA co-hosted a candidate forum to give voters the opportunity to hear from the incumbent, Stephen Zappala, and the challenger, Turahn Jenkins.

Unfortunately, voters were not given this opportunity as Mr. Zappala chose not to attend the forum. Speaking with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the days following the forum, Mr. Zappala stated, “I’m not interested in talking politics with the ACLU or socialists.”

The charge that the candidate forum was “socialist” might come as a surprise to some of the co-hosts of the event, including the conservative group Americans For Prosperity, which, among other issues like criminal justice reform, advocates for a free market — Eugene Debs acolytes they are not.

Once it was clear that Mr. Zappala was not going to attend, the candidate forum became a community forum, with three defense attorneys and a community organizer joining Mr. Jenkins on the stage for a vigorous discussion about smart criminal justice reform. The discussion ranged from topics such as money bail and pretrial detention, mandatory minimum sentences, and probation reform.

When discussing the need to get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing, Lisa Freeland, a federal public defender for Western Pennsylvania, noted that “most efforts to eliminate mandatory minimums have been met by prosecutors with the following: ‘we need mandatory minimums because it’s the only way to get a plea bargain’ … The prosecutors need these, they believe, to squeeze people.”

But, Ms. Freeland continued, “The real problem with mandatory minimum sentences is that they don’t work.”

In a conversation about much-needed probation reform in Pennsylvania, attorney Frank Walker neatly summarized what happens when a person violates probation, saying, “If you mess up on probation in state court and you mess up and go before the judge, they can do whatever they want … the worst part about it is you don’t see the judge right away when you violate. You might sit in jail for months before you see the judge again.”

Turahn Jenkins agreed and also invoked the financial burden associated with the fees and financial penalties that accrue while on probation, effectively criminalizing poverty, reminding the audience that there is “a large segment of our population on probation because they can’t afford to get off probation.”

The discussion turned briefly to the outsize influence that the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has in shaping legislation and lobbying the legislature.

The problem, according to Ms. Freeman, is that “the prosecutorial side of an adversarial system is seen as being fair and reasonable, while the defense side of that same system is seen as partisan — we just want to let people out of prisons … that’s a danger of having the PDAA without having an organization on the other side.”

The discussion ended with calls from Mr. Jubas and Mr. Walker for Allegheny County to institute a conviction integrity unit, which would review and make public all data regarding convictions in the district attorney’s office. District attorney offices are notorious for their lack of transparency and accountability. A conviction integrity unit would offer a measure of transparency and accountability to the public. A similar unit was established in Philadelphia several years ago and has been given an increase in resources under the leadership of DA Larry Krasner.

It’s a shame that Mr. Zappala declined to attend the candidate forum. A strong democracy is rooted in the ability of the voting public to make an educated choice at the ballot box. By ignoring requests to attend this candidate forum, as well as neglecting to respond to a criminal justice reform survey sent to both candidates, Mr. Zappala is not giving voters the chance to make that educated choice.

While Mr. Zappala completed a questionnaire on criminal justice reform earlier this year, he declined to respond to a candidate survey. You can see Mr. Zappala’s questionnaire responses and Mr. Jenkins’ survey responses at KnowYourDAinPA.org.

We encourage all Allegheny County voters to learn more about each candidate for DA and make a plan to go vote on May 21.

Ian Pajer-Rogers is a communications strategist with the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

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