Many of the “progressive prosecutors,” as they are popularly known, who began winning elections in what was heralded as a wave from around 2014, now find themselves heavily beleaguered or ousted—amid a national “tough on crime” backlash to decarceration momentum that surged with the 2020 George Floyd uprisings.
Chesa Boudin, for example, who was elected as San Francisco’s reformist DA in 2020, was recalled by voters in 2022. Kimberly Gardner, a Black woman who wished to change the ethically corrupt St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office from the inside in Missouri, recently announced she would resign effective June 1. And Larry Krasner, one of the longest-serving and most high-profile of them all, has been under relentless political fire as his city, Philadelphia, looks poised to elect a pro-police mayor.
But voters elsewhere in Pennsylvania—in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), a jurisdiction many national-level reformers were ready to write off—has just bucked this depressing trend. Even if the fight there isn’t over quite yet.
On May 17, Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan defeated long-term Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala in the Democratic primary for top prosecutor, winning 56 percent of the vote on a decarceration platform.
Zappala’s style has been about washing his hands of responsibility for societal problems, despite both aggravating them and having the power to mitigate them.
Zappala, who has been the DA since way back in 1998, has often been an opponent of criminal justice reforms that are proven to help marginalized communities of color. In 2015, for example, he opposed moves by the City of Pittsburgh to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. And in 2017, Zappala’s DA office created $2 million in court-imposed debt for community members, just to charge around 1,700 people with low-level drug-law violations.
His style as DA has been about washing his hands of responsibility for societal problems, despite both aggravating them and having the power to mitigate them. While Zappala has acknowledged that poverty and social problems are root causes of crime, he likes to remind critics that he is “not in charge of transportation, safe and decent housing, or education. I’m on the back end of government.”
That attitude runs counter to the philosophy of the reformist prosecutor movement, which refuses to silo crime and prosecution away from issues like inequality. “I do see a place for the district attorney to think more about crime prevention and to address the issues that are really driving people into the criminal justice system in the first place,” Dugan told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
He also stated that “Every policy that we have, every directive we have in the district attorney’s office, every new initiative will always be looked at through the lens of how does this impact racial disparity in the system?”
Dugan explicitly says he wants to reduce the county’s jail population.
Dugan has acknowledged the inability of the system to address substance use disorder and mental health, advocating for what he calls “true” diversion programs that would, he says, prevent people from being criminalized on low-level charges in the first place. And he explicitly says he wants to reduce the county’s jail population.
His campaign was boosted by over $750,000 in TV and mail ads from the Pennsylvania Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by George Soros—whose support has been critical to getting many reform prosecutors elected around the United States.
Steve Zappala, on the other hand, is a part of a very powerful Pennsylvania family. His late father, Steve Zappala Sr., was once the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. And
Dugan has said that his influence as such an entrenched incumbent weighed against his campaign. “Steve had long-standing relationships with labor and other folks and a lot of folks were afraid to donate to us for fear of retribution,” he said after winning.
And Zappala may not be done yet. Despite his primary defeat, he has been teasing the idea of a run in the general election—perhaps under the Republican Party banner, now that Dugan is the Democratic candidate.
Whether or not Dugan is confirmed as the new DA in November will go a long way to indicating the prospects for the wider reform prosecutor movement.
If Zappala were to succeed with such a strategy, it would not be his first comeback when reformers thought his time in his powerful position could be over.
In 2019, two seemingly credible reformers challenged him back-to-back in the primary and general elections.
But Turahn Jenkins, the 2019 Democratic primary challenger, imploded after he described LGBTQ people as “living in sin.” Whatever good decarceration ideas he had became irrelevant at the ballot box, where he lost by almost 20 percentage points.
And in the general, Team Zappala was able to advertise an allegedly racially-biased jury strike that opponent Lisa Middleman, who ran as a progressive independent and is now a Court of Common Pleas judge, made early in her career as a public defender.
Whether or not Dugan is confirmed as the new DA in November will go a long way to indicating the prospects for the wider reform prosecutor movement after severe recent headwinds.
Photograph via Rawpixel/Public Domain