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Matt Dugan, Allegheny County's chief public defender, to challenge Zappala for DA

Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan will challenge Steve Zappala Jr. in the race for District Attorney this spring
Dugan campaign
Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan will challenge Steve Zappala Jr. in the race for District Attorney this spring

They’ve never met in a courtroom, but Allegheny County’s district attorney and the head of its public defender’s office are poised to argue over the future of criminal justice before voters in this spring’s Democratic primary.

Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan plans to challenge Stephen Zappala Jr.’s bid for a seventh term.

Our criminal justice system right now is stuck in neutral,” Dugan said. After more than 20 years with Zappala in office, “We're stuck with the same policies that we know don't work, and we need to start thinking less reactively and more proactively.”

For Dugan, that means going farther than Zappala has to find alternatives to incarceration. It means, for example, improving on Allegheny County’s “drug court.”

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While the existing program provides intensive drug treatment as an alternative to imprisonment, it also requires a guilty plea. Dugan says a criminal record can stigmatize recovering addicts. A better approach would be to use the resources of the DA’s office to build a “stronger network of support” for minor offenders, he says.

“We need to think about the opportunity we have,” Dugan said about the upcoming election. “We’ve got a county executive election. We have a mayor who talks about crime [as] a public health crisis. And we have a robust network of support systems. If we can coordinate and get in front of these issues, I think that’s progress.”

While criminal-justice reform efforts are sometimes viewed as anti-police, Dugan says any collaboration he would forge “absolutely includes” law enforcement.

“Police are looking for alternatives to arrest, prosecute and punish,” he says.

But Dugan says part of building community trust means the DA’s office itself needs to be more accountable. To that end, he says he will establish a conviction integrity unit — which reviews previous convictions for flawed convictions — within his first 100 days.

“There needs to be that element of accountability,” he said. “We absolutely need to go back and take a look at cases that may have problems.”

Dugan says he’d first prioritize cases handled by Mark Tranquilli, a former top county prosecutor who became a Common Pleas Judge but was accused of racist remarks and other inappropriate conduct. Tranquilli stepped down afterdeclining to contest the accusations.

Dugan is mindful that a reform-minded approach will likely be compared to that of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, who has been a lightning rod for criticism — and the target of an impeachment effort in Harrisburg — as crime rates there have soared.

While Dugan says he likes Krasner’s less punitive approach to lower-level crimes, he said his approach would be more collaborative. And done right, he said, reform should make communities safer.

“I anticipate being painted with a broad brush here as a progressive prosecutor,” he said.

But he said, “you cannot deny that there has been a rise in violent crime” in Allegheny County under current practices too.

Finding new approaches, he said, “allows us to go after and aggressively and competently prospect violent crime. This does not come at a risk to public safety.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Zappala said he was "proud of my record of reform within the criminal justice while focusing our efforts to keep the people of Allegheny County safe." He cited his adoption of police body cameras and license-plate readers as investments in technology that "provide the best evidence for our citizens" and said he'd innovated treatment for people with mental health or substance-abuse concerns.

“I am confident the people of Allegheny County trust that I, as District Attorney, am fully committed to doing what it takes to rid our streets of drugs and violent crime," he concluded, adding, "I look forward to hearing what other candidates have done to reduce violent crime in our communities.”

A graduate of Duquesne University law school, Dugan began working in the public defender’s office over 15 years ago, and worked himself up from handling preliminary hearings to becoming chief deputy director.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald appointed him to head the office three years ago. In that position, Dugan ushered in reforms that include additional training and initiatives like an effort to provide criminal-record expungements to clients.

“I've held every position in the office from little baby pretrial attorney to trial attorney to homicide attorney to now chief public defender,” Dugan said.

When they hear about his bid for District Attorney, “People have asked: 'How can you go from one side to the other?'” Dugan acknowledges.

Through their work, he said, public defenders “understand what brings folks into the system. And I think we understand the solutions to potentially keep them out.” But the DA’s office "is the most influential position when it comes to criminal justice. And without a change in the top prosecutors office, there will be no change.”

Zappala has been a target for progressive criticism for years, never more so than when he instructed prosecutors not to offer plea deals to clients of an attorney who accused prosecutors of systematic racism.

But ousting Zappala would be no easy feat.

In 2019 — the only cycle in the 21st century in which he has faced an opponent — Zappala easily brushed back a challenge from Turahn Jenkins, who’d been a top deputy in the public defender’s office, in the Democratic primary. He then bested independent candidate Lisa Middleman in the fall.

But Dugan says “a lot has happened” since that race, and Democrats who support criminal justice reform, like Congressional Rep. Summer Lee, have fared well in recent years.

Zappala came out swinging against one of those progressive leaders when he announced his re-election bid a month ago. Long a foe of former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Zappala reportedly criticized his replacement, Ed Gainey, calling Gainey’s former legislative district “some of the most violent neighborhoods in Western Pennsylvania.”

Dugan called those remarks “extremely unhelpful [and] very uninformed. Mayor Gainey takes seriously the rise in crime. He wears it on his sleeve.

“In order to effectively run a criminal justice system, you need partners,” Dugan said. “There is a network that really wants to see change in the criminal justice system. It's the idea of getting these folks together [and]coordinating those efforts to make an impact.”

Updated: January 19, 2023 at 5:10 PM EST
This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 to include an additional statement from Stephen Zappala.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.