Zappala, Dugan square off in Allegheny County district attorney race’s lone debate

Allegheny County’s top prosecutor and the head of its public defender’s office faced each other in a KDKA-TV debate Thursday night, each pleading his case to voters in the contentious race for district attorney.

Incumbent Stephen A. Zappala Jr. faces chief public defender Matt Dugan in what amounts to a retrial of the Democratic primary: Dugan beat Zappala for the party’s nomination, while Zappala won a write-in bid on the Republican side, setting up a rematch this fall.

But while the party labels have changed, the issues remain the same, with Dugan maintaining that  “until we see change at the top of the district attorney’s office, we’re going to be stuck with … the status quo.”

Zappala, meanwhile, touted his own quarter-century of experience while lumping Dugan in with reform-minded prosecutors in communities such as San Francisco or Philadelphia.

“This is the same all across the country: empty promises, empty assurances, things that they want to do that cannot be done,” he said.

The hourlong debate ranged over a number of issues, with Dugan generally offering a progressive critique of the criminal justice system.

“It’s impossible to deny that there are stark racial disparities” within it, said Dugan, citing a statistic that Black citizens made up more than two-thirds of the Allegheny County Jail population while comprising about 13 percent of the county’s overall population. “As district attorney, the first thing I would do is acknowledge that, yes, racial disparity exists.”

Among other things, Dugan pledged to provide regular data to the public on the charging decisions made by his office online to track such concerns.

Zappala countered that “80 percent of the violent crime in our community, unfortunately, takes place in the minority community.” But he said his office had taken steps to reduce disparate treatment, including overseeing the filing of serious charges by police.

“This is a righteous process,” he said, later adding that “We do not have cases [of] driving while black. … We do not have that type of conduct by police.”

Zappala touted his own record of reform. When asked about the use of cash bail – which requires a defendant to put up a certain amount of money to get out of jail while awaiting trial – Zappala said his office took steps that “ensured the courts have to consider someone’s financial means” when setting bail.

“That has never been a problem in Allegheny County,” he said.

“Cash bail for low-level offenders has been a problem in Allegheny County,” shot back Dugan, who said his office dispatched public defenders to those proceedings to ensure bail was fair. He faulted Zappala for not sending prosecutors as well, saying his failure to do so contributed to a magistrate district judge’s decisionto allow a New York drug dealer to skip towndespite being charged with possession of $1.6 million of fentanyl. Zappala called the criticism “incredibly naive,” noting that bail was set at a pro forma arraignment.

On the question of whether the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center should be reopened, meanwhile, it was hard to tell which candidate took a harder line.

Zappala said the Shuman name “and the concept under which it was constructed … should disappear. It was constructed as … a longer-term prison for younger offenders,” when more emphasis should be put on providing support and education. “Instead of talking about detention all the time, we’re talking about care. We’re talking about treatment,” he said.

Dugan didn’t disagree with those goals but said, “We need a locked-down, secure facility for our youth.” He claimed the absence of such a facility enabled some offenders to commit more serious crimes, while others who might have been detained became homicide victims on the outside instead.

On the plight of Downtown Pittsburgh, which has prompted complaints of open-air drug use, Zappala seemed to blame city officials for a lack of enforcement. Zappala said his office must “count on the elected officials being in touch with their community. … [T]he elected officials Downtown have not been in touch with the community. So we have issues that could have been resolved.”

Dugan, meanwhile, said he would carry out “targeted enforcement of open-air drug transactions” Downtown, though he said he would seek to have a designated magisterial district judge to handle offenses in the area to facilitate treatment and other assistance for those who need it.

“We will prosecute lower-level crimes, but we will offer off-ramps for folks when it’s safe,” he said.

One of the debate’s sharpest exchanges involved whether the office should have a conviction integrity unit to review cases for possible false convictions — a unit that exists in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, among others.

How’s the conviction integrity unit working out for Philadelphia?” Zappala asked rhetorically, an apparent reference to controversies surrounding District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose support of criminal justice reform has been blamed for crime woes by conservatives. “It doesn’t seem to work at all.”

“The conviction integrity unit in Philadelphia has exonerated over 30 people,” Dugan replied. He repeated a longstanding pledge to form a unit and begin by reviewing cases previously handled by Mark Tranquilli, a top prosecutor for Zappala who was later removed from the county Common Pleas bench for allegedly making racist remarks.

Zappala said decisions by prosecutors are subject to review.

“They may want to proceed in a particular way,” he said, “but if it’s wrong … we won’t let them do it.”

“We’ve never had a wrongful conviction under my tenure in Allegheny County,” he added.

“If the removal of a judge for overtly racist behavior doesn’t raise red flags[when] he was your former employee … it’s just sad,” Dugan said. “It shows why we need change in Allegheny County.”

Though Zappala is running as the Republican nominee, he described himself as “a law-and-order Democrat.” But while he’s been reelected a half-dozen times, he has never faced a challenge as serious as Dugan’s, and at times he seemed ill at ease Thursday night. On three occasions during the debate, he said, “I am not a politician” and lamented sometimes that he didn’t have enough time to explain his position, once declining to use the time he did have despite encouragement from the debate panel.

But Zappala questioned Dugan’s own credentials for the office.

“Mr. Dugan has chosen to specialize in the representation of people accused of crimes,” he noted. And while “I think that’s a laudable purpose, it doesn’t give you any insight into the criminal justice system.”

He also criticized Dugan for running a campaign that relied heavily on support from a political committee financed by billionaire George Soros, who has supported criminal justice reform candidates in other areas.

“He’s given assurance and he’s done things that every one of these prosecutors … have said to their constituents. They get into office and they destroy a city, they destroy a region,” he said. “I’m not gonna let this guy do that.”

Dugan said that his reform message was “homegrown,” and developed well before spending on the race began in earnest. Many of the policy prescriptions he offered Thursday night haven’t changed since he launched his bid last winter, but there is little question that his messages have been amplified heavily with Soros’ support.

Still, Dugan noted that Zappala’s attacks echoed claims made in his campaign’s TV ads, whose images of urban mayhem from other cities Dugan called “repulsive.”

“[H]e’s doing that because he’s a desperate man,” he said.

The election is Nov. 7.

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