As a storm cloud formed over Pittsburgh’s skyline Monday, dozens of supporters gathered at Freedom Corner in the Hill District to hear former Allegheny County Public Defender Turahn Jenkins announce his plans to challenge 20-year Democratic incumbent District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. next year.
Jenkins told the crowd that the current DA’s office has done nothing to respond to the voice of the people for 20 years. He said he’s worked in the system and watched it fail the citizenry. Jenkins has lost cousins to gun violence and the court system. He knows what it is like; he knows the devastation the system can cause.
“That’s why I am standing here today, asking you to vote for me as your next District Attorney of Allegheny County,” he said.
As rain poured, Jenkins addressed the crowd, his suit soaked through.
“The time for change is now. We can’t sit by and complain. Right now, we’re in a crisis with mass incarceration all across the country and Allegheny County is no exception,” Jenkins said. “We have people that are overcharged. We have people sitting in jail on petty offenses–low level, nonviolent offenders. And the District Attorney, they view this as a win-win as opposed to justice.
“It’s all about convictions and not about justice. It’s all about stats and not about justice. And I’m tired of it.”
Jenkins grew up in Monroeville and went to Gateway High School. (Parts of the crowd cheered, “Go Gators!”) He earned his bachelor’s degree in criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He then worked as a social worker for two years before going back to school at Duquesne University of Law.
Jenkins was law clerk in the Allegheny County public defender’s office before becoming an assistant district attorney in January 2006. After three years, he entered private practice for criminal defense. He returned to the public defender’s office in 2013 as a deputy director of pre-trial services. He became chief deputy director in 2016. His resignation from the office was official Monday.
Jenkins also asked the crowd to recall the 1980’s: the crack cocaine epidemic. He said it ravaged Pittsburgh. He recalled Pittsburghers going to jail and prison for possession and low-level offenses. Back then, there was no talk of rehabilitation or restoration.
“No hope. No help. Only to come back home to be demonized by the rest of society. So what ends up happening? They end coming back to the system,” he continued. “We did nothing to help them. Now it’s 2018, and we have another epidemic on our hands.”
Jenkins said the city is doing nothing to give heroin users support and, once again, we are punishing them. He said the current epidemic is a public health issue, not a criminal one.
“We need to look at people as people and not dockets,” he said.
Zappala hasn’t received much in the way of legitimate challengers over the course of his 20-year career. But there also hasn’t been a challenger with as much out-of-the-gate support as Jenkins appears to have.
Summer Lee, a Braddock Democrat running for the the state legislature supported Jenkins. She knows something about beating an entrenched incumbent when she beat Democrat Paul Costa in the May primary.
“This time we’re gonna get it right because we’re going to vote. We’re going to hit the streets. Do you know what we’re going up against? Not just the machine! Do you know what we’re going up against? We need each and every body in the streets,” Lee told the crowd. “We can’t hope for this. We can’t wish for this. We can’t just soley pray for this…We have to put our feet and our hands and our money–our money!–where our heart is.”
Julius Boatwright, founder of Steel Smiling, a nonprofit that focuses on mental health awareness in Pittsburgh was one of the many supporters in attendance.
“This moment in time is beyond special because the nation has its eyes on Pittsburgh. Everyone’s watching to see how we’re going to continue standing in solidarity with each other as a collective,” Boatwright said. “Our community members are showing the world what can be accomplished when we align ourselves in the fight for justice.”
Brandi Fisher, President of the Alliance for Police Accountability told the the crowd that nobody in the county has dared to stand up to Zappala until now.
“This is courage!” she said, “This is faith! And this is integrity! And that’s what we need to stand up for…All we want is somebody to be just, to be fair. And that somebody is Turahn Jenkins.”