Reformers Soar in Pittsburgh Primaries, Opening New Chapter for Decarceral Efforts

The longtime DA of Allegheny County lost the Democratic primary to a public defender but vowed to now run as a Republican; the left also prevailed in the county executive primary.

Alex Burness   |    May 17, 2023

The Allegheny County jail (Alex Burness/Bolts)

Voters in the Pittsburgh area spoke clearly Tuesday night in favor of progressive reform to the local criminal legal system.

In Allegheny County primary elections, Pittsburgh-area Democrats nominated candidates for two key local posts who vowed transformative change, voting to oust the punitive, longstanding district attorney  and selecting an anti-carceral Democratic socialist as county executive. 

In the Democratic primary for Allegheny County DA, public defender Matt Dugan beat incumbent Stephen Zappala easily, with over 55 percent of the vote as of press time. Dugan had focused his campaign largely on convincing more moderate suburban voters of the need to overhaul an office that has presided over vast inequalities in arrests and prosecutions, which disproportionately target majority-Black neighborhoods in the county.  

“From a criminal justice reform perspective, and more generally a social justice perspective, it tells me that more people from a broader swath of communities are starting to grasp that the criminal justice system is unfair, full of waste, and too often inhumane,” Rob Perkins, president of the progressive Allegheny Lawyers Initiative, told Bolts Tuesday night. “In other words, my suburban neighbors are starting to get it.”

But reform advocates aren’t celebrating just yet: Zappala, who has held the post since 1998, is headed for a rematch with Dugan in the November general election because local Republicans, lacking their own nominee for DA and aware that Zappala could lose in the primary, organized a write-in campaign for him in the GOP primary. GOP write-in ballots have not yet been tallied but an unusually large number were cast, indicating the effort likely succeeded; Zappala confirmed Tuesday he would accept the GOP nod.

“We haven’t really thought about November, but we fully expected him to do this,” Dugan told Bolts on Tuesday night, adding that the DA’s office would change under his leadership. “We’re going to talk about opportunities, not just prosecute. … We’re going to talk about building better systems such that folks don’t have to live with gun violence and criminal justice issues.”

Matt Dugan at a campaign event in Pittsburgh in early April (Alex Burness/Bolts)

The last time Zappala stood for re-election, in 2019, he was both the Democratic and Republican nominee. That year, reform advocates tried to unseat him in the primary and general elections, but had trouble convincing residents of more suburban, majority-white areas to pay attention to the deadliness of the local jail and the disproportionate punishment and incarceration in Allegheny County’s minority communities. 

As Bolts reported in April, the weight of the local criminal legal system is felt acutely in a handful of neighborhoods and towns that skew much poorer and have higher Black populations than in the rest of this highly segregated county—for example, the county jail population is 66 percent Black, though Black people account for only 12 percent of the overall county population.

“They don’t just take us one by one,” Terrell Johnson, a formerly incarcerated and wrongfully convicted Pittsburgh man told Bolts last month. “They can put an indictment down and get 15-20 Black men outside of their households. That’s what it is. It’s still that way.”

But in Dugan’s victory Tuesday, people working to upend this system see hope because he has promised to divert more people toward treatment and services and away from incarceration; pursue shorter sentences, including for parole and probation; dramatically reduce the local jail population; and interrogate questionable past convictions secured under Zappala.

“We’ve been thinking through these issues for a long time,” Perkins said. “This is a big night for us.”

As Allegheny County pivots now to what could be another competitive DA election in November, less mystery surrounds the critical county executive race after Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Sara Innamorato, a progressive state representative who was endorsed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and won the Democratic nomination with 37 percent of the vote, as of press time, will face Republican Joe Rockey, who ran unopposed in the primary and who polling suggests is a longshot to defeat her. 

Allegheny is a blue-leaning county that voted for Joe Biden by more than 20 percentage points in 2020, making any Democratic nominee a strong favorite; still, Republican candidates retain much more of a path to victory than in other urban counties like Philadelphia.

As Bolts reported this month, the county executive race carries particularly high stakes for Allegheny County’s system of youth incarceration: the local youth lockup, the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, was shuttered in 2021 amid repeated violations of state standards, and the question of how—or whether—to open a new detention facility will fall largely to the next county executive. 

Sara Innamorato won Tuesday’s Democratic primary for county executive in Allegheny County (Rep. Sara Innamorato/ Facebook)

In contrast to Rockey and her two primary opponents, Innamorato has questioned whether Allegheny County needs a detention center for children. Amid calls from police and her opponents to reopen the shuttered youth jail, Innamorato told Bolts earlier this month, “I want to flip that conversation and say, ‘What do our young people need so they don’t end up in a detention facility?”

Jay Moser, the former principal of the school that operated inside Shuman, said he’s excited by Innamorato’s win.

“The problem is so much broader than just saying, ‘Oh, those kids are bad,’” Moser told Bolts late Tuesday. “There are issues that need to be addressed systematically: poverty, racism, lack of opportunity. With her philosophy on governing, there’s no doubt in my mind that she will usher in changes, that we won’t just focus on punishment first.”

One of Allegheny County’s loudest anti-carceral voices, county council representative Bethany Hallam, also won her countywide election Tuesday, crushing challenger Joanna Doven in a Democratic primary—a third critical victory for the left in the Pittsburgh region.

“It’s a strong rejection of the status quo,” abolitionist organizer Tanisha Long, who has been part of the years-long push to reduce incarceration, told Bolts on election night. “People are sick of feeling like Allegheny County is not for everyone.”

The article has been corrected on May 17 to clarify that write-in ballots in the Republican primary for DA have not yet been tallied.

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