Turahn Jenkins explains the policies he would implement if he were elected district attorney in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh
This interview is part of the Appeal: Political Report’s coverage of 2019 local elections.
Allegheny County’s longtime District Attorney Stephen Zappala will face Turahn Jenkins, the county’s former chief public defender, in the May 21 Democratic primary. This is Zappala’s first contested election since 1999. Jenkins, who was an assistant DA under Zappala from 2006 to 2008, said in announcing his bid in July that he was running because he was “tired of sitting on the sidelines and watching as our criminal justice system destroys people’s lives.”
The Political Report talked to Jenkins on Monday about how he would reform the county’s system. Prosecutors have great power in terms of the charges and sentences they seek (The Appeal has repeatedly reported on racial disparities in the county’s prosecutorial practices), as well as in terms of legislative influence. In the interview, Jenkins evoked practices he favors reforming: He opposes the death penalty, favors repealing rules that provide for some minors’ automatic treatment as adults, blames “this mass incarceration crisis” in part on harsh policies advocated by the state’s prosecutors association, and favors shortening the length of probations. He said he believed that “nuisance and poverty-related crimes” should be “directly diverted,” though he declined to state that he would “not … prosecute certain offenses.” Other prosecutors have recently outlined such policies. He also said he would file homicide charges in the wake of overdoses, a practice to which Zappala has turned in response to opioid deaths, though only in some circumstances.
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
There has been a national trend in looking at the role prosecutors play in bringing reform to the criminal justice system. How do you see the office of DA playing into reforms and how does your experience as a public defender help shape that view?
This conversation has been going on very recently and I think people are starting to see the district attorney as the gatekeeper of the criminal justice system. Nothing moves without their involvement. The thing that makes me unique is that I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been a prosecutor and I’ve been a public defender. I’ve worked in social work and I’ve been a law professor. I think that is what makes me the best candidate for this role. I’ve tried cases both as a prosecutor and as a public defender. I’ve worked with law enforcement, I’ve worked with crime survivors and I’ve worked with the community. I have the best skill set to effectuate a lot of the changes necessary in my role as district attorney.
In the face of the overdose crisis, district attorneys across Pennsylvania, including current Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala, have increasingly sought homicide charges when someone overdoses and dies. Is this a policy you support, why or why not?
If the evidence suggests that the person delivering the drugs knew they were laced with fentanyl, of course.
Are you saying you would only seek homicide charges if the person knowingly sold drugs that contained fentanyl?
Certainly. Based upon my experience a lot of these cases involving drug delivery resulting in death are a byproduct of two users using together. One person survives and the other dies. I don’t know if they really know the heroin they are using was mixed with fentanyl.
What steps do you think the DA’s office can take to reduce overdose deaths in the county?
I think [DAs] should be more proactive in the community. I think they were more involved with schools so they can stem the trend of addiction. I speak to a lot of my clients who are addicted to opioids. Two common themes that I’ve found is that some of them as teens end up at a party and someone gives them something and before they know it, they are strung out on heroin. Or, they may suffer some devastating injury and be prescribed opioids and then they are cut off, so they self-medicate with heroin.
We should be more proactive with how we are dealing with the issue because we are dealing with it by prosecuting when we should be figuring out ways to stem and divert these people from the system and get the help they need.
In Allegheny County and in many counties in Pennsylvania, police can file charges without speaking to the DA and initial bail is typically set without the DA’s office being present. What can you do from the DA’s office to address front-end issues like pretrial incarceration given the less active role Pennsylvania prosecutors play in that phase of proceedings?
While a magistrate sets bail, by and large they defer to the district attorney’s office. As the next district attorney, there are certain offenses that I don’t think should ever have a bail attached to them. I’ll give you one concrete example. There was a young man who was in a vehicle. He had a small amount of marijuana in his pocket. Some police officers may not have done anything. Some may have cited on the spot. This young man was taken to Allegheny Jail and given a bail. He spent nearly a week in jail, and he lost his job. I don’t know how putting him in jail made us any safer.
There are some offenses like small amount of marijuana, minor retail theft and some criminal mischief that bail shouldn’t be attached to those offenses because of time and it’s a waste of money. Even if those people were to go to trial with these charges and lose, these offenses don’t require jail time, so why are we incarcerating people pretrial. One of the easy steps we should take is to identify certain offenses where we won’t attach bail.
Just to clarify, the DA’s office is not involved in the preliminary arraignment when bail is typically set in Allegheny County, correct?
They are not, but they are involved in the next step of the process, the preliminary hearing.
In the 1990’s, Pennsylvania passed a law requiring juveniles be charged in adult court if they are accused of certain felonies and meet certain requirements. This has affected black youths across the state and in Allegheny to a greater degree than white youths and research shows it leads to worse public safety outcomes than to keep children in juvenile court. Do you think the legislature should repeal this law, why or why not?
They should. It should be left within the discretion of the district attorney’s office. I have a hard time with blanket policies because I think every case should be viewed case by case.
Do you believe juveniles should be prosecuted in adult court?
If at all, it should be in the rarest of circumstances. I believe in the restorative model. I believe that we should give our youth to be restored in the juvenile justice system. The statistics have shown us, the more exposure our youth have in the juvenile justice, the more likely they are to enter the adult system. So, as the next district attorney, I think we need to save them at the mouth of the river and have the best practices in place so they can be restored, victims can be made whole and [our youth] can have the tools they need to avoid future involvement with the criminal justice system.
You have been outspoken about the shooting death of Antwon Rose by former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld and Zappala’s handling of the case. Rosfeld was recently acquitted in that case. In your view, what is the proper way to investigate killings by police?
In this particular case, one of the problems I had, just as a citizen, is the officer was given bail for criminal homicide, which everyday citizens don’t enjoy. In a situation like that, it painted a picture that he was given special treatment because he was a police officer. In my vision of the criminal justice system, everyone is treated the same whether they are a police officer, a bus driver or a mechanic.
In the instances where there’s a police officer involved shooting, they’re sensitive, so if the current administration didn’t feel they could conduct a fair investigation because of a relationship with the officer involved, perhaps a request to the Attorney General’s office should have been made.
You were criticized early in your campaign over comments you made about homosexuality. Do you believe that there are efforts or reforms that need to be made in the criminal justice system to better protect LGBTQ people?
One of the things I’ve always said is we have to get back to treating people like people. When I say that, I mean everybody. Everybody needs to feel protected. Nobody needs to feel like justice is not available to them. We need to look at how we are treating people who come through the justice system, because nobody should feel like they’re targeted because of who they love or the color of their skin or the God they serve, because that’s not justice. Based upon my experience I see how unforgiving and how little compassion there is in the system. It has to end. I would make sure our staff is educated and well informed. We would have hiring practices that would include members of the LGBTQ that way their interest are represented as well as everybody else.
Do you think the legislature should expand the state’s hate crime statute to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity?
I do, and I think as the next district attorney I would have more of a role in that process. While the district attorney’s office is not a member of the legislative branch, they do have great sway. As the chief law enforcement officer they help how these laws are created, because it is the role of this office to dispatch justice.
Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner recently withdrew his office from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. If you become DA, would you keep your own office as part of the association?
My feeling about the District Attorney’s Association is that a lot of their practices and policies are part of the reason why we are facing this mass incarceration crisis. They were huge proponents of mandatory minimum drug laws that brought thousands of Pennsylvanians into the state department of corrections. Their policies are not in line with my views on how the district attorney’s office should operate. I think we need to shift our efforts to restoring people, not punishing them and I believe that people should be given the opportunity to get their lives back on track.
Currently, police in Allegheny County have to receive approval from the district attorney’s office to file felony charges, but not for lower level offenses. Do you think that approval should be expanded to include misdemeanor charges?
I believe you are referring to the warrant office here in Allegheny County, where the officers have to get permission to file felony charges. I think it is a waste of time and resources. I think the better practice would be to have true diversion. What I mean by that, while we have diversionary courts here in Allegheny County, the people going through them still leave the criminal justice system with convictions and they still have to proceed through life with that handicap and stigma of a criminal conviction.
My vision would be to have true diversion to capture the people before they enter the criminal justice system and give them the opportunity to right their wrongs, that way we’re all safer and it gives people an opportunity to move on with lives and we can focus on the people who are actually violent and dangerous and plaguing our community.
So, you’re talking about a pre-arrest diversion program?
Certainly. Certainly for low level offenders. I think it may be premature and may not be prudent to say across the board that I’m not going to prosecute certain offenses, but there is a litany of offenses I feel should be directly diverted.
Could you give us an example?
Certainly: small amounts of marijuana, low-grade retail thefts, criminal mischief, public urination, I just believe there are other issues we should be focused on other than the nuisance and poverty-related crimes.
Death penalty prosecutions have been on the decline in Pennsylvania for some years and the death penalty was rarely carried even before Gov. Tom Wolf instituted a moratorium. As DA, would you seek the death penalty?
I’ve done my research on the death penalty. I know for a fact throughout this country who are innocent of crimes and the death penalty has been handed out disproportionately to minorities and to poor people, so I am not a proponent of the death penalty.
Most criminal cases are disposed of with a plea arraignment. While the DA cannot officially set the sentence, the office is typically given a great deal of deference in the process. What are some efforts you would undertake as district attorney to help curb the imposition of excessive sentences?
I think we should put caps on probation. Statistics show us that if [people] don’t recidivate within 15 months of probation, chances are they aren’t going to recidivate, so why are we having people on probation for five, six, seven, and in some cases up to 10 years? The problem with having people on probation for so long is that there are fines and costs associated with probation. A lot of these people don’t have money, so they are subject to sanctions and jail time. What I did when I was a public defender was when a person was on probation and a law-abiding citizen with just fines and costs to pay, we petitioned the court to get them off probation. The average docket for a probation officer can be 300 people and the average person on probation doesn’t need to be there. [Probation officers] need to focus on people who are actually dangerous. These are people who are gainfully employed, paid their debt to society and are not engaged in criminal activity, so why are continuing to monitor them?