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Democrats running for Pennsylvania attorney general walk fine line on criminal justice reform

Democratic attorney general candidates: Eugene DePasquale, Keir Bradford-Grey, Jared Solomon, Joe Khan, Jack Stollsteimer.
Courtesy images
Democratic attorney general candidates, clockwise, from top left: Eugene DePasquale, Keir Bradford-Grey, Jared Solomon, Joe Khan, Jack Stollsteimer.

Just a few years ago, criminal justice reform wasn't just an issue that united Democrats: Even former President Donald Trump got involved, signing a bipartisan bill to reduce federal sentences for drug crimes. But flash forward to 2024, and the five candidates for Pennsylvania's top prosecutor are playing down the topic — a mark of how the politics around crime have changed even as crime rates ebb from a post-pandemic spike.

The Democratic field includes a wide variety of candidates: two prosecutors, a defense lawyer, a state legislator and a former state official. But the candidates are largely emphasizing their ability to enforce laws rather than their ability to tackle over-incarceration or address historic inequities.

Even Keir Bradford-Gray, the lone public defender in the race, is pointing out that her experience getting people out of prison would help her put criminals back in. “I have seen why people commit crimes, how they commit crimes, when they commit crimes,” she told WESA. And while she said her experience gives her some ideas about ways to tackle the underlying reasons for crime, she emphasized that her experience would “plug holes” in gun crime cases.

To be sure, the Democratic hopefuls are largely in lock-step with what have become consensus Democratic positions on criminal justice reforms, like espousing the need for more spending to help prisoners readjust to life after they are released. Just don't expect to find these issues at the top of their campaign materials.

The politics of crime

Much of the discussion about crime shifted amid a post-pandemic spike in crime rates. In 2022, Republican candidates across the country, like Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, attacked Democrats for being soft on crime at a time when violent crime was rising. Oz lost his race, and Republicans nationwide underperformed expectations that year. But Democrats have been on the defensive.

Last year Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala successfully hammered his reform-minded challenger, Matt Dugan, as being soft on crime in the general election after losing his primary. Crime fears also played a prominent role in a narrowly decided race for county executive, even as crime rates declined throughout the campaign.

Recent polling suggests that although crime isn’t the top issue for most voters, it has become increasingly important, especially to Republicans and independents. Democratic voters are more evenly split by the issue, and the attorney general candidates picked up on this: None of the five Democrats in this race could say whether Pennsylvania’s Democratic voters care more about increasing safety or reducing the prison population right now.

Several of the candidates, like former Bucks County solicitor Joe Khan, didn’t specify whether they believe Pennsylvania’s prisons are too full right now. “I think the question should never be about what are the numbers, what are the statistics, but are the people who are sitting in jail, the people who should be sitting in jail?” he said.

Bradford-Gray said “we have over-prisoned our population” and that she had made efforts to reduce the prison population in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, by for example, spending more effort during pretrial hearings to determine whether someone needed to be held in jail. This didn’t cause an increase in crime, she said.

She said she would audit the prison conditions of every county in Pennsylvania to ensure similar best practices were in place elsewhere. “Are they sitting in prison, getting better, so that they could be better off for their communities when they come out?” she said. “Or are they sitting in prison, rotting and being destroyed so that they're worse in their communities?

Jack Stollsteimer, one of the two prosecutors running, was the only candidate who wasn’t completely against capital punishment: He said he would consider making an exception for people who kill police officers.

Stollsteimer also didn’t have much sympathy for reformers who prioritize creating a safer, legalized drug supply over putting drug traffickers in prison. Stollsteimer’s brother died “alone above a bar” in the middle of the pandemic after a lifetime of abusing legal and illegal drugs, he said.

“I don’t think the government should be in the business of enabling people to destroy themselves and kill themselves,” he said.

Other candidates in the race also have family connections to addiction and crime. DePasquale’s father was wounded in Vietnam, became addicted to painkillers and resorted to dealing drugs before recovering later in life.

“I am the child of a formerly incarcerated felon,” he said. “I understand deeply the importance of punishing people for their crimes, but also what it means to give them a second chance.”

‘Crime is always a perceived problem’

Candidates said that Democrats have special reason for caution when running to be Pennsylvania's top law enforcement official. Since the state began electing attorneys general four decades ago, “only two Democrats have ever been elected,” said Khan, one of two prosecutors running. “So we need to have a credible message on public safety.”

Although district attorneys handle most criminal prosecutions, the attorney general is responsible for enforcing some of the state’s most challenging laws, like drug trafficking and political corruption.

Jared Solomon, a Pennsylvania legislator, was the only candidate to invoke the name of George Floyd when talking about his views on criminal justice reform. Solomon wants to create a task force with experts to study further reforms, like what happened in Minnesota after Floyd’s murder.

“They made a series of recommendations to the legislature and then worked to realize those reforms,” Solomon said. “I'd be guided by a principle of making sure that the justice system reflected fairness.”

For the most part, the candidates haven’t returned to the kind of reform rhetoric that emerged in the wake of Floyd’s murder, despite the fact that violent crime has been falling again after it spiked in 2020 during the pandemic, according to FBI data.

“We have a crisis in places like Philadelphia, where a public safety emergency has been declared by the mayor, where we have to do something to get the rate of shootings under control,” Khan said, even though the homicide rate in Philadelphia fell by 20 percent last year.

Other candidates have said the recent spikes and dips are insignificant compared with where crime was in the early 1990s. Homicides in Pittsburgh have fallen even more sharply in 2023, where DePasquale lives, than they did Philadelphia, the hub of the metro region where the four other candidates live. But DePasquale said it was important to note that violent crime did spike briefly after the onset of the COVID pandemic.

“I don’t think anybody should try to sugarcoat that it did spike up again,” he said. “And now it seems to be dropping again.”

While violent crime is substantially lower now than it was in the 1990s, it’s higher than it was in the 1960s, Stollsteimer said. In any case, “crime is always a perceived problem,” he said. “and perception is actually more important than reality oftentimes.”

‘We have to make sure we’re not destroying communities’

Even though criminal justice reform isn’t at the center of their current campaigns, there is a widespread agreement on several criminal justice reform issues that advocates are pushing for. All the candidates speak positively about providing additional services for prisoners in and out of prison, so that they are less likely to reoffend when they are released. They all talk about trying to create diversionary programs for low-level offenders to avoid prison terms and they don’t think a person’s financial background should be a reason to hold someone in jail while awaiting trial.

And they all believe drug addiction should be treated more like a disease than a crime — even though none of them say they will vigorously enforce the law against drug dealers. Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, said the epidemic rise in overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl has become an issue candidates can’t ignore. The epidemic may have muted reform efforts in Pennsylvania, but she said in many places across the country politicians are using the issue to further the tough-on-crime rhetoric.

“This is a serious health issue in communities that unfortunately, in my view, has been kind of parlayed into a debate over how much prison time we should be giving people who deal drugs,” she said.

All five candidates support Gov. Josh Shapiro’s effort to legalize marijuana, but none of them supported legalizing or decriminalizing any other drugs, such as what happened recently in Portland, Oregon. (Oregon state lawmakers have since passed legislation undoing parts of the decriminalization legislation passed by voters there.) Even Bradford-Grey, the public defender, said she was skeptical of designating specific spaces for safe drug use.

“You can't decimate a community because we know that this is where people like to use drugs and just call this an open-air drug area,” she said. “We have to be able to make sure that we're treating people who use drugs but also making sure that we're not destroying communities.

Several of the candidates say they have a record that shows support for criminal justice reform. For example, Stollsteimer brags about closing the only privately run prison in Pennsylvania and creating diversion programs for low-level offenders.

Among Khan’s list of accomplishments is his support of policies that make it easier for former prisoners to get hired. Khan said he created a unit where non-violent felons can get their convictions pardoned and records expunged in Bucks County.

Robert Saleem Holbrook, the executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, said his organization is pushing the candidates to take an active role on Pennsylvania’s board of pardons. Both Shapiro and U.S. Senator John Fetterman voted to pardon and commute the sentences of more prisoners during their time on the board than previous boards had.

“That board is responsible for releasing people from prison who have been in prison for 30, 40, 50 years, who have demonstrated rehabilitation and change,” Holbrook said. “And we want an attorney general that is going to prioritize providing second chances to people who are worthy of them.”

Khan said he would use his time on the board of pardons to help people with marijuana convictions get relief. Although the other candidates didn’t specifically mention the board in their answers, they clearly favored relief for low-level marijuana users, if not dealers who are also dealing other drugs.

Even if the winner of the Democratic nomination did decide criminal justice reform was a winning issue, it’s not clear if they’d be able to differentiate themselves from Republicans. Dave Sunday, the Republican who has been endorsed by the state party in the race, brags about reducing the prison populations by almost 40% in the first sentence of a description about his accomplishments. (Stollsteimer, the Democratic prosecutor, touts a 30% reduction.)

And in any case, some groups that have historically championed criminal justice reform said it simply wasn’t a top priority this year. “The vast majority of our work this election year,” a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania said, “is going to be focused on election protection.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.