Allegheny County DA Zappala faces 1st election challenge in 20 years
Longtime Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. will face his first challenger for his job in 20 years in Tuesday’s Democratic Party primary election.
Political newcomer Turahn Jenkins said the county’s criminal justice system is broken, and he aims to fix it.
“I believe that this county is in need of criminal justice reform,” Jenkins said. “I see a need, and I felt that I have the experience and training to take on the challenge.”
Jenkins, 41, of Churchill, resigned from his role as chief deputy director in the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office when he launched his campaign in July 2018. He previously worked as an assistant district attorney and in the social work and mental health fields.
He first considered running for district attorney in March 2018. While working in the public defender’s office, Jenkins wanted to address issues like mass incarceration, a broken bail system and transparency in the office. If he wanted to tackle those issues from his position in the public defender’s office, he knew that he would need buy-in from the district attorney, he said.
By early June, he made the decision to run for the position himself.
The shooting of Antwon Rose II on June 19 “shed light on many of the issues plaguing the criminal justice system,” Jenkins said.
Zappala defended how his office handled the trial of Michael Rosfeld, the former East Pittsburgh police officer who shot Rose and was subsequently charged with homicide. He stated that the office did everything it could to fulfill its obligations ahead of the trial. Rosfeld was acquitted.
Zappala, 61, of Fox Chapel, started his career as district attorney in 1998 after he was appointed to the post by county judges to serve the final two years of then District Attorney Robert E. Colville Sr.’s term. Colville Sr. was elected to the Common Pleas bench.
In 1999, Zappala beat W. Christopher Conrad in both the primary and general elections. Conrad was a homicide detective in the district attorney’s office who Zappala fired soon after taking over.
The 1999 elections were the only time anyone has challenged Zappala in a primary or general election, according to election records.
Zappala’s only other competitive campaign came in 2016 when he mounted an unsuccessful challenge for state attorney general, losing to now Attorney General Josh Shapiro in the Democratic primary.
The 20-year incumbent said his record speaks to why he’s still the best person for the job, pointing to diversion programs that he launched at the beginning of his tenure as an example.
“Should I self-promote more? I’m not that type of person,” Zappala said.
The five special treatment courts, the first of which was launched in 1999, are aimed at addressing specific issues, like drugs, prostitution or exploitation, mental health and driving under the influence, and have been replicated across the state. The fifth, veterans’ court, has received national attention, Zappala said.
Jenkins has been critical of existing diversion programs. He has said such programs should try to help people before they enter the criminal justice system.
Zappala argues it’s not that simple, since those programs are geared toward people who have committed multiple offenses.
“Their whole life, unfortunately, has been problematic, so there’s not much you can do when somebody is a multiple offender,” he said.
His office is also working to enhance Phoenix Court, which focuses on getting people out of the system quickly on probation and with access to treatment, Zappala said.
Both candidates acknowledged the limits of the district attorney’s office in achieving widespread reform of the criminal justice system. They agree that the district attorney needs to work with state legislators to change laws, including those pertaining to use of force.
Jenkins recently traveled to Harrisburg to advocate for changes to use of force laws in partnership with local lawmakers. Zappala said he’s worked with lawmakers throughout the state on issues like sentencing enhancements, police body cameras and, most recently, the Clean Slate law.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .