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Criminal justice reform groups back Dugan, Innamorato

County executive candidate Sara Innamorato speaks at a rally of criminal-justice reform supporters at the Allegheny County Courthouse
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
County executive candidate Sara Innamorato speaks at a rally of criminal-justice reform supporters at the Allegheny County Courthouse

A coalition of progressive activists and labor groups says Allegheny County has a chance to transform its criminal justice system this spring — and they know just the candidates for it.

On Monday, progressive advocacy groups that included the Working Families Party, One Pennsylvania, and PA United joined with SEIU locals to formally back Sara Innamorato’s bid for county executive, along with that of Allegheny County District Attorney hopeful Matt Dugan.

“We need people who are not just going to fearmonger in their ads,” said Congresswoman Summer Lee, herself a champion of justice-reform efforts, warming up a Monday-morning press event at the Allegheny County Courthouse. “We don’t need to hear you talking about crime…. We need to talk about the failure of policies that you are at the helm of. We need people who are going to talk about solutions.”

Innamorato noted that the criminal-justice reform movement delivered a number of wins in recent years, including a 2021 ballot question to end the use of solitary confinement and other restrictive approaches in the county jail. It also backed the elections of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Congresswoman Summer Lee.

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“This year we are ready to take back the last vestige of power held by the status quo when we elected a new county executive and a new district attorney,” said Innamorato, who is currently a member of the state House. “For far too long our systems have failed the most vulnerable populations… while line items for carceral systems increase. Community safety is multidimensional, and we will not incarcerate our way to it.”

Innamorato’s campaign rolled out a “Justice for All” initiative that offers a range of proposed reforms. They include increased spending for mental health, increased funding for the public defender’s office, and an effort to place formerly incarcerated people on the Jail Oversight Board, as well as efforts to help raise standards for police in cash-strapped communities.

Dugan, who currently heads the public defender’s office, voiced support for such initiatives and said he would press to expand current court diversion programs. Such programs are directed at non-violent offenders struggling with problems like substance use and seek to provide them with counseling while avoiding the stigma of a criminal conviction.

“We see thousands of people a year cycle through this building without ever really thinking about the core drivers that bring people in,” Dugan said of the county courthouse. “Yes, we have violent crime in Allegheny County — and it’s up, but the vast majority of folks that we see… are low-level, nonviolent folks,” many of whom struggle with substance use or mental health challenges

“The criminal justice system needs to stop the go-to model — arrest, prosecute, and punish — and think about ways in which we can invest in our folks [so] they don’t come back to the criminal justice system,” Dugan said.

Such solutions almost by definition require cooperation between various arms of government. And while Dugan and Innamorato aren’t running mates, they each said their efforts would benefit from having willing partners in other government offices. Alternatives to incarceration, for example, require both funding and prosecutors willing to direct defendants toward them.

“I’ve talked through the life of our campaign about the need for our office to partner with every branch of government,” Dugan said after the event. “Sara and I certainly share similar ideas on the issues that these groups feel are important."

“These are very deep, intersectional issues, and they require an interdisciplinary approach,” Innamorato agreed. “Absolutely we’ll need to be partnering with the next district attorney.”

That’s the hope of the organizations who formally supported the candidates Monday.

Such backing comes as little surprise: Innamorato has long been a favorite of the left and SEIU. While Dugan is a political newcomer, criminal-justice reform advocates have long sought to oust longtime incumbent District Attorney Steve Zappala.

The countywide political landscape has changed since Zappala last ran in 2019. That year, the reelection of Rich Fitzgerald was a foregone conclusion, and Zappala’s challenger, Turahn Jenkins, stumbled badly out of the gate with his own base over his church’s teaching about homosexuality. Zappala easily won.

Monday’s event suggests that Dugan has solid support among activists. While Zappala has failed to land the endorsement of party leaders.

For her part, Innamorato is running in a crowded field of Democrats, and the race has so far been dominated by ethics concerns involving rival John Weinstein. Other candidates in the race have also said they would support reforms like replacing the leadership at the Allegheny County Jail. However, activists on Monday said they’ve picked their champions.

“The 2023 elections represent a clear opportunity for genuine change and effective reform,” said a statement issued by the groups who organized the event. “[W]hich is why our progressive coalition has come together in record numbers to support Matt Dugan for District Attorney and Sara Innamorato for County Executive.”

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.