Long-time Allegheny County public defender Lisa Middleman said Monday that she plans to run as an independent for district attorney in November.
“I’ve spent the last 30 years as a public defender, and I’ve seen all the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, and I try to fight them one client at a time.” Middleman, of Franklin Park, said. “But when the opportunity arose to make a bigger, better, systemic change [as district attorney], I jumped on it.”
Middleman, 57, seeks to unseat Democrat Stephen Zappala, who has been DA since 1998. Her bid comes about a month after the failed primary challenge of Democrat Turahn Jenkins.
Like Jenkins, Middleman said she would push harder as district attorney than Zappala to find alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders.
“We’ve been misled for the entire length of my career into believing that if we punish human frailty, we can somehow make it go away,” Middleman said. “We’ve been treating addiction and mental illness and poverty as crimes.”
Middleman said people charged with minor crimes would be less likely to commit future offenses if they were to receive more support.
“So in the long run,” she said, “if you can help people and treat them and keep them out of the criminal justice system entirely, we will have a much safer environment.”
To that end, the defense attorney said she would make it “the rule instead of the exception” to link eligible defendants to treatment and community support in lieu of time behind bars.
During his tenure, Zappala has sought to provide such support through “diversionary programs” such as mental health court and drug court. But Middleman said almost none of them are “true diversionary programs,” which she said allow participants to have their charges dismissed and cleared from their record.
“I’ve had clients in the past who thought that they didn’t have a record as a result of going through veterans court or drug court,” Middleman said. “But in order to get into those programs, you have to plead guilty, and so you have all of the attendant disadvantages [of having a record].”
One exception, the attorney said, is the county’s Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program. The program often serves people charged with driving under the influence, but Middleman faulted it for being limited to first-time offenders and for being expensive for participants.
A spokesman for the Zappala campaign said the district attorney could not immediately respond to a request for comment, saying the candidate was “handling matters of the county outside of politics.”
Middleman, who specializes in homicide and death penalty cases at the public defender’s office, said if she was elected, she would be able to focus on prosecuting violent crimes by devoting fewer resources to trying cases for minor offenses.
In addition, she said she would go farther than Zappala to reform the bail system. While the district attorney has advocated to reduce the use of money bail, his campaign released a policy paper in March that said the practice should be required “when there is a high likelihood the defendant will not appear [for court] or represents a danger to others or the community.”
Middleman said she would seek to eliminate bail entirely.
“There’s no logical reason that the payment of cash bail would make it more likely that a person would not be dangerous,” the public defender said. “It makes it more likely that a wealthy person would be out on the street rather than a poor person.”
Instead of using bail, she continued, judges should simply decide whether or not it is safe to release defendants before trial. And if they are released, Middleman added, judges should choose whether to impose conditions such as prohibiting contact with victims or requiring the defendant to receive treatment or complete GED classes.
For Middleman, this policy would fit a larger shift in how the criminal justice system approaches defendants.
“One thing I did learn after 30 years of representing people was that most of them just have a need: They need drug treatment. They need mental health treatment. They need support in trying to combat homelessness and poverty and joblessness,” the attorney said. “I know if we’re able to meet those needs rather than incarcerate them, we will have safer communities for everyone.”
Middleman has been a public defender in Allegheny County since graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1987. She helped to organize the attorneys' union at the public defender's office and now serves as a grievance officer.
To qualify for the November ballot, she must gather nearly 4,000 signatures by August 1.