By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the upcoming Allegheny County District Attorney election. Part two can be found online Thursday, May 3 on pittsburghcurrent.com.
On July 2, 2018, under gray skies and heavy downpours, Turahn Jenkins announced his candidacy for Allegheny County District Attorney. While the weather was horrible, it didn’t dampen the mood or the excitement around his candidacy.
The stage behind him and the ground in front of him were packed wall-to-wall with progressive voters and elected officials thrilled at the thought of someone viable, who shared their vision of what justice was supposed to look like, taking on two-decade incumbent Stephen Zappala. His candidacy came on the heels of the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Antwon Rose II by a police officer.
The fact is, Zappala hasn’t played well with more progressive voters and many were excited that Jenkins, a former prosecutor and former public defender, was the right person for the job. On that rainy July day, for example, Jenkins was introduced by Leon Ford, a young unarmed man shot by police and paralyzed following a traffic stop. Many were upset that not only did Zappala charge Ford, he didn’t charge the officer who shot the young man.
The campaign was launched with enthusiasm and momentum. But within a week, things took a sharp downward turn. In a meeting on July 6 with members of the LGBTQ community, Jenkins was asked about his affiliation with an anti-LGBTQ church and he said that he believed being gay was a sin. The news travelled fast and the excitement surrounding Jenkins campaign waned. Many progressives who had backed Jenkins just four days earlier had rebuked him.
But a lot has happened since July. The officer who shot and killed Antwon Rose with three shots to the back was acquitted. Many blamed Zappala’s trial strategy and were refocusing again on the upcoming election. But that wasn’t the only thing that had changed since July.
Turahn Jenkins began a self examination. He set out to learn more about the LGBTQ community. He talked to community members and he read books dealing with the massive injustices that many LGBTQ individuals were forced to suffer through. He says he’s learned a lot since the day of that meeting and has deep regret that it ever happened.
“I am so sorry that this happened. I never want to be a person who causes someone else pain. That’s the last thing I wanted to do. It’s absolutely opposite of who I am as a person. Part of the reason that I decided to run for this office was that I’m tired of the devastation that this office has brought on everyone,” Jenkins told the Current in a recent interview. “I’ve met with dozens of members of the LGBTQ community since this happened. A lot of it was in a private setting because they didn’t want it known publicly that they had met with me. I’m so glad they met with me because I wouldn’t have the knowledge that I have now. Like with Maria, I can’t stress how glad I am that she decided to come in and meet with me despite everything that happened.”
Maria is Maria Montano, a union organizer, member of the LGBTQ community and a well known trans activist. Montano was at that July meeting and her social media posts were the catalyst for the fallout.
“There was a lot of excitement when Turahn announced his campaign,” Montano said recently. “But when he said what he said at that meeting, I was heartbroken because every person in that room wanted to support him.
“I think he finally saw how damaging words like the ones he used could be. But he’s been watching, learning, reading and truly trying to understand more about our community. I told him all that was left was for him to own up to his mistakes and work to bring people together.”
Indeed, a lot has happened since that meeting. Not only did Jenkins recently get the endorsement of the Pittsburgh arm of the Democratic Socialists of America, he got Montano’s endorsement as well. When the Current showed Montano Jenkins’ recent apology she replied with four words: “He has my vote.”
With just about 20 days left until the election, Jenkins still has some ground to cover against Zappala. He has radically different ideas than the ones Zappala has initiated in his time as DA. His experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, he says, has allowed him to see how the office of the DA affects people from both sides of the table.
“I’ve been to every part of this county; honestly, parts of this county that I didn’t even know existed,” Jenkins said. “But I’m finding that no matter where I go, there’s someone who has been adversely affected by the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from.
“People everywhere realize the devastation caused by the criminal justice system. Lives have been ruined because of one low-level misdemeanor. Even if they get probation, they have to spend their lives explaining to employers that one really small misstep because it follows you for life. The criminal justice system is a black hole. It’s really easy to fall into it and very difficult to get out.”
Treatment of the public at large once they enter the criminal justice system and working to divert people away from the system all together whenever possible, is the linchpin of many of the policy changes he would make as DA.
Here is a roundup of Jenkins’ stances on important issues facing the District Attorney’s office, compiled from a recent interview:
More defendants, particularly in drug cases, need to be placed into better diversion programs.
“I believe in diversion,” Jenkins says. “We have a drug court, which is a diversionary court, but true diversion means diverting them before they enter the criminal justice system.” Under the current system, the individuals must plead guilty to all charges and receives a sentence of about 23 months. The individual can then be sent to a treatment facility, but if they relapse or are noncompliant, the sentence can be converted to either county or state prison time. But even if they make it through the program, they’ve still been convicted. “Relapse is part of recovery and we need to recognize that,” Jenkins says. “We spend a lot of resources on the Allegheny County Jail, $100 a day per inmate. I believe we should be taking that money and putting it toward treatment. These people are sick and need help. I’m not naive enough to think we can help everybody, but we’ve gotta try because our current system isn’t working.”
The criminal justice system in Allegheny County is creating more criminals.
When someone is accused of a crime, even a minor offense, their first concern is usually avoiding jail time. So when an offer of five years probation instead of incarceration is offered a lot of people jump at that chance, Jenkins says. But any kind of conviction comes at a price. “We convict someone for a low-level drug offense, for example, and we are essentially blocking these folks from housing and better jobs,” Jenkins says. “Essentially, we’re turning probation into life sentences and they are going to commit more crimes. I want everyone to be safe, but the way we are conducting business in Allegheny County is making more criminals and that means none of us are safe. It’s better to take those resources that we are spending on over-incarceration and supervised probation and use them to help people get their lives back on track.”
Establish prosecutorial priorities.
Jenkins says the more serious punishments in the criminal justice should be reserved for the most serious offenses. “The justice system should be more focused on the people who are truly dangerous and violent,” Jenkins says. “We shouldn’t be focused on people with mental health issues or those with drug addiction or those who are trapped in poverty. We haven’t done a good job in this county of setting the right priorities.”
Mass incarceration has become an epidemic.
“I think there are a slew of offenses that, barring extenuating circumstances, should never be incarcerated for,” Jenkins says. “For example, last year I represented a young man who was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped by police. Officers patted him down and he had a small amount of marijuana on him. In that situation, the officer could have taken the marijuana, stomped it out and told the kid to ‘beat it;’ he could have written him a citation or they could have charged him. He was charged and went to the Allegheny County Jail. He spent a week in jail and lost his job. How are we any safer because of that.”
Make prosecutions across the county fair and equitable.
“What I can say is, as a former prosecutor and a defense attorney, I’ve handled cases all over this county and cases are prosecuted differently here in the city than thy are in the suburbs,” Jenkins said. “There are cases that are resolved outside of the city that would never be resolved that easily in the city of Pittsburgh.” In the case of filing charges against police officers, Jenkins says many people have told him that they “don’t believe that justice has been even-handed. They believe that favoritism is paid to police officers and that just serves to widen the divide between the citizens and the police. A lot of people don’t even feel in these cases like justice is even remotely available to them.”
The prosecution of Officer Michael Rosfeld in the killing of Antwon Rose was mishandled.
Jenkins says that Zappala is not a prosecutor and that Jenkins would have prosecuted Rosfeld himself. “You can’t be the chief law enforcement officer in a county and have a thorough understanding of the criminal justice system having never had the experience of trying the case,” Jenkins said. In regard to the Rosfeld case, Jenkins says he believes Zappala only charged Rosfeld to try and quell the public protests that were shutting down the city and that Zappala’s heart wasn’t really into the prosecution. Jenkins says he has an issue with the fact that Rosfeld had the opportunity to remain on house arrest pending trial. “Typically, if you are charged with criminal homicide, you are held without bond. What kind of message does that send that a police officer gets house arrest,” Jenkins asks. “I’ve also continually brought up the fact that they never put up a use of force expert. That gave the defense instant credibility. They claimed they couldn’t find one, but I find it hard to believe that they weren’t able to obtain a use-of-force expert.”