Mixed Results for Criminal Justice Reformers in Pennsylvania Primaries

Philadelphia ousts its sheriff. The Allegheny County DA wins the Democratic primary.

Daniel Nichanian   |    May 23, 2019

Rochelle Bilal won the Democratic primary for sheriff in Philadelphia (Bilal/Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Philadelphia ousts its sheriff, while Allegheny County’s punitive DA wins the Democratic primary

Pennsylvania held primaries for sheriff and district attorney on May 21, and the contrasts were stark on issues related to the criminal legal system in the state’s two biggest counties, Philadelphia and Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh).

Philadelphia ousts its sheriff

Philadelphia is sure to have a new sheriff next year. Rochelle Bilal handily ousted incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. She is a former police officer and president of the Guardian Civic League, an association that represents Black police officers.

As head of the League, Bilal endorsed Larry Krasner’s successful bid for district attorney in 2017. The president of the local police union (Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5) tried to use that endorsement against Bilal this year. But Krasner and Bilal have maintained their ties. Krasner headlined fundraising efforts for Bilal, while Bilal told the Philadelphia Tribune that she would be a “partner” of the “reform effort which is presently active in Philadelphia,” including Krasner’s “efforts to change items such as cash bail and sentencing guidelines.”

Bilal is likely to win November’s general election in this heavily Democratic city. She will face no Republican opponent, though independent and third-party candidates can file to run until August.

The powers of the Philadelphia sheriff are circumscribed, but I wrote in my preview of the race last week that one issue rose to the fore: The sheriff is in charge of selling foreclosed property, and local housing advocates have denounced the pace of these sales. Nikil Saval, an organizer with the left-leaning group Reclaim Philadelphia, told me that a sheriff should help shift from a “culture that favors punishment” to one “that values keeping people in their home.”

Bilal told me last week that she would shift the focus of the office from managing sales to fighting foreclosures. She said she would “put less money in advertising and selling homes” and “more money into foreclosure prevention and community education,” with goals of linking people to legal assistance and establishing a “consumer protection division” to investigate complaints. And she sees a connection between confronting foreclosures and criminal justice reform. “Due to the trauma foreclosures cause to families because of the housing instability, it could potentially lead to more people being involved in criminal activities,” she said.

Incumbents thrive in DA elections

Seven DAs faced a challenger in Pennsylvania’s primaries on Tuesday. All prevailed except the incumbent in the state’s smallest county.

Nearly all of them face no major-party opposition in November’s general election, though independent and third-party candidates can still file to run until August. As such, they are close to securing new four-year terms, having won primaries with often diminished media visibility and low turnout. Still, the mere fact that these counties held contested primaries provided an opportunity to get some DAs on the record about their policies and to build more accountability for mass incarceration. This was the very first time since 1999 that Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala, the chief prosecutor of the state’s second largest county, faced an opponent—a stark (and common) pattern.

The Political Report has updated its masterlist of Pennsylvania’s 2019 DA elections with the results of all 15 primaries that took place this week. Besides the seven counties where DAs faced direct challenges, there were eight primaries that featured no incumbent. I will return to some of these eight, as well as to the counties that will feature contested elections in November.

For now, let’s review the major takeaways of the seven primaries that involved incumbent DAs.

Stephen Zappala survives challenge in Allegheny County: Zappala defeated Turahn Jenkins, the first opponent he faced since 1999. Jenkins did better in the city of Pittsburgh, but Zappala won suburban areas by overwhelming margins. As I wrote in my preview last week, the county’s legal system is marked by stark racial disparities, and this primary was marked by significant disagreements. Zappala, who has faced protests for not holding police officers accountable, insisted on a narrow definition of the DA’s role that does not acknowledge the huge impact of prosecutorial discretion on the community. He positioned himself against the “philosophy” of “the ACLU or socialists.” Jenkins called the criminal legal system a “black hole,” and ran on a slate of reform proposals.

As a result, the state’s second-largest county will most likely remain in the PDAA. One question going into these elections was whether Krasner’s reform efforts would gain an intrastate ally. In December, he quit the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), which often lobbies for punitive policies in the state capital. Jenkins, Allegheny’s losing candidate, told me at the time that he might withdraw from the PDAA if elected.

Cumberland County DA Skip Ebert wins primary. Ebert easily defeated Jaime Keating, a former assistant DA, in the GOP primary. Both ran by highlighting their punitive credentials. Since taking office, Ebert has made aggressive use of statutes that allow for prosecuting overdoses as homicides; he said that he would step up these charges if re-elected. Keating also touted his support for such charges, which public health advocates denounce as harmful. Ebert faces Democrat Sean Quinlan in November.

Cameron County ousts its DA. In the state’s smallest jurisdiction, Paul Malizia defeated DA Jeanne Miglicio (who narrowly ousted Malizia in 2015) in the GOP primary. Four other incumbents easily won GOP primaries. They are Huntingdon’s Dave Smith, McKean’s Stephanie Vettenburg-Shaffer, Mercer’s Pete Acker, and Susquehanna’s Marion O’Malley; none will face a Democratic opponent in November.