It’s an honor to be your District Attorney. I’m proud of our team and our systematic efforts to keep Allegheny County safe, reform our criminal justice system, and to ensure that every person who enters that system is given the tools they need to be a productive member of society once they leave it.
“As District Attorney, my primary job is to ensure the safety of each of Allegheny County’s 1.2 million residents.”
Working with Everyone
Allegheny County is one of the most diverse counties in the state – and the second-largest. My office is always adapting our approaches to best serve all our residents, and I consistently challenge my team to find new and impactful ways of truly achieving justice for all.
We coordinate with more than 133 municipal police departments and 43 magisterial districts on referrals and potential cases. That means working with everyone involved in our justice system, from elected community magistrates to individual police officers. It’s our job to thoroughly evaluate each and every case that comes before us, and determine which element of our system is best suited for each unique circumstance.
Over the last ten years, the average total population of our county jail has decreased. We’ve successfully routed thousands of individuals battling substance abuse disorders, mental health issues, and the effects of extreme poverty, out of the criminal system and into programs to receive the unique help and support they need to rehabilitate – instead of allowing them to needlessly suffer incarceration at taxpayer expense. But, there’s more work to do.
An Emphasis on Technology
Since I took office, I’ve placed a premium on making sure we’re using the best technologies available to keep our county safe. Using contemporary tech, like high-resolution surveillance cameras, reduces local crime rates and quickly helps law enforcement solve open investigations.
My office has overseen the installation of more than 450 cameras in 75 locations countywide. We placed new, building-mounted devices on the Southside of Pittsburgh and on the campus of Pitt to keep small business owners and students safe. We also helped procure license plate-reading cameras for our highways that track suspects across municipal lines and ensure they’re brought to justice.
“We need to protect all our neighbors – especially our county’s children, our seniors, victims of domestic abuse, members of minority groups, and our four-legged friends.”
The State’s First Domestic Violence Unit
The aftermath of domestic violence is a serious trauma that no victim should have to face alone. But in many instances, local prosecutors have too much on their plate to give these victims the total support they need.
That’s why when I took office I created the state’s first dedicated Domestic Violence Unit, staffed with attorneys who only focus on protecting victims and their families.
Each year on average, the DVU prosecutes 1,000 cases in the Court of Common Pleas, 1,000 cases in local Municipal Courts, and handles 400 PFA (Protection from Abuse Order) violations to keep every victim safe and make sure they get the justice they deserve.
Of course, victims of domestic abuse need far more than just legal assistance to begin to heal. The lawyers at the Domestic Violence Unit understand that, and in addition to prosecuting cases against abusers, they work hard to connect victims to support resources, programs, and hotlines throughout the county.
Keeping Victims Safe
Reporting domestic abuse can be a difficult and confusing process, and it’s our job to ensure that victims and their families feel safe and supported as they navigate the justice system. Many times, this means obtaining Protections from Abuse Orders (PFAs) to keep their abusers away. Too often, those orders are ignored and abusers continue to harm their victims or their families as the result of backlog and complex bureaucratic holdups.
I’ve challenged our DVU to use new and innovative policies, programs, and technologies to improve the effectiveness of PFA orders. Notably, we’ve pioneered the use of video conferencing to help victims quickly communicate with officials to obtain PFAs, streamlining a critical process and giving them the expedited security they need.
Because of the close relationship most victims have to their abusers, it’s imperative they remain far away to be kept safe. To help, we developed a GPS monitoring program that automatically alerts local law enforcement officers to perpetrators crossing court-ordered geographic boundaries. In many instances, this program has protected victims from imminent harm – or even death.
Protection Across the Lifespan
Allegheny County’s youngest residents and our eldest are often most at risk of abuse. To combat this, our office created the county’s first Child Abuse and Elder Abuse Units to investigate and prosecute credible allegations and keep these specific populations safe.
Child Abuse is a serious, oftentimes life-or-death crime, and law enforcement officials must have all the tools they need to investigate accusations completely. We’ve partnered with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to develop better methods of gathering and preserving evidence of abuse so that perpetrators can be brought to justice quickly and effectively.
As the population of our county ages, many residents are at increased risk of crime. Our seniors should have the right to dignity and respect, and I created the county’s first Elder Abuse Unit in 2004. Working closely with Protective Services, the members of our Elder Abuse Unit are dedicated to protecting senior citizens from all varieties of abuse and ensuring they enjoy their well-earned comfort and security.
Keeping Drunk Drivers Off The Roads
Drunk driving fatalities make up nearly 30% of all premature deaths in Allegheny County. That statistic should be 0, and we need to do all we can to reduce it.
I’m proud to say that I was the first prosecutor in Pennsylvania to successfully confiscate vehicles used by drivers convicted of habitual DUI, and during my time in office, alcohol-related crash deaths have declined countywide.
Protecting Our Pets
As a dog owner, I can’t imagine anyone abusing an animal and I believe it’s our duty to protect all of our county’s four-legged friends. That’s why I’ve fought hard to make dog-fighting a felony with serious consequences, upgrading it from a misdemeanor charge, and created the Commonwealth’s first Animal Cruelty Unit staffed by five prosecutors specifically trained to handle animal abuse cases.
Alongside County Treasurer John Weinstein, I created the Allegheny Abused Animal Relief Fund (AAARF) which raises money to provide care for animals that have suffered cruelty, neglect, or outright abuse. Our Fund serves as a model for other counties’ efforts, and similar programs have been implemented statewide as the result of our work
“The goal of our criminal justice system should be to guarantee public safety, not to lock people up and throw away the key.”
“The goal of our criminal justice system should be to guarantee public safety, not to lock people up and throw away the key.”
My office treats each case we receive as a unique circumstance, and we must use the right tools – warrant offices, diversionary programs, treatment and support systems, and contemporary technologies – to ensure anyone who enters the justice system returns to their communities a healthy, productive member of society.
Charging someone with a crime is a consequential accusation, and charges shouldn’t be leveled without substantial evidence and forethought. To ensure these decisions aren’t made lightly, I created a regional warrant office system requiring local police officers to receive express authorization from DA staffers before they can charge potential defendants with over 40 felonies, and change their lives forever.
These offices have reduced the number of overly-harsh or untenable accusations, and help standardize the process through which our county’s 133 police departments charge suspects. Our warrant offices ensure no one is unnecessarily charged with a serious crime.
Since we’ve opened our first office, our county jail population has declined by almost 10%, saving county taxpayer dollars and – ultimately – county lives.
Utilizing 11 Diversionary Systems
I firmly believe in the power of our justice system to not only make Allegheny County a safer place to live, but a fairer and healthier one as well.
When potential charges are referred to our office for prosecution from local magistrates or law enforcement officials, we need to determine which elements of our justice system are most appropriate to use if we move forward – and we treat every case we receive as a unique circumstance worthy of individualized response.
That’s why my office uses 11 distinct diversionary programs to keep certain defendants, like those suffering from addiction or in need of mental health treatment, out of the punitive system. These diversionary programs reduce unnecessary incarcerations and give individuals the tools and support they need to kickstart their rehabilitation process.
Diversionary Courts and Programs
- Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition – ARD helps first-time offenders avoid jail time and expunge their record after completing certain ordered conditions.
- Drug Court – individuals battling substance abuse disorders receive the support they need to rehabilitate from Drug Court, rather than unnecessary and unproductive jail time.
- DUI Court – for people with two or more DUI arrests, this program diverts them away from jail and towards necessary treatment.
- Pride Court – Pride helps individuals move beyond time spent working in prostitution.
- Mental Health Court – this court system places people suffering from mental health disorders in needed treatment.
- Veterans Court – this court was created specifically to help our veterans, and ensure we serve those who proudly served us.
- Domestic Violence Court – we developed this court to specifically given victims of domestic abuse the justice and closure they need.
- Sexual Offenders Court – this court is designed to help individuals receive treatment for sexual disorders.
- The Phoenix Docket System – this program helps streamline the legal system for non-violent defendants and accelerates their rehabilitation process.
- Probation Without Verdict – for qualified offenders, this program helps them avoid drug convictions, and expunges their record of criminal charges following successful completion of their probation.
- Expedited Disposition, The Rocket Docket” – this Pittsburgh municipal court program helps accelerate certain criminal cases, reduces unnecessary jail stays for litigants during proceedings, streamlines those proceedings by moving old, backlogged cases to the front of the line for adjudication, and helps more defendants exit the criminal justice system more quickly.
The Jail Collaborative
When a person encounters the criminal justice system, their life is changed forever. It’s our job to make sure this change is ultimately positive, and that every individual who interacts with our system leaves it in a better place – and with better support – than when they entered.
In 2000, my office partnered with county leadership to create the Jail Collaborate Program. This interdisciplinary system helps offenders better reintegrate into their communities, decreases potential opportunities for recidivism, and sustainably improves public safety.
The Jail Collaborative includes a wide variety of unique tools for individuals in the justice system: a screening to determine personal service needs; an individualized plan designed and facilitated by trained caseworkers; and, a commitment from our courts to reduce sentencing in exchange for an individual’s successful completion of their service plan.
Uniquely, a Community Re-Integration specialist is always assigned to approved inmates, who work to ensure that every required service is utilized to help that person successfully return to their communities.
Reforming Cash Bail
It’s no secret that the current cash bail system disproportionately hurts defendants more than it keeps our country safe. Since the first day I took office, I’ve worked hard to reform this system and free non-violent, low-income defendants pending their day in court.
Statistics prove that any time spent in jail prior to a hearing – even a few days – places low-income defendants at a greater risk of losing their jobs, their homes, and facing poverty following their release. I don’t believe a person’s life has to be ruined forever just because they’re currently facing charges. If someone isn’t a flight-risk or an overt threat to themselves or the community, there’s no reason they should sit in jail as the particulars of their case are sorted out.
I’ve successfully petitioned the State Supreme Court on multiple occasions to reform cash bail rules and keep low-income defendants and their families out of life-altering debt.
While state and regional guidelines outline when cash bail ought to be utilized, local magistrate judges have the discretion to follow them or not. To offer additional guidance to judges – and to signal my office’s constant interest in greatly reducing the use of cash bail – we supported the development of new risk-assessment tools that members of the judiciary should always consult before making bail decisions.
Even if a local magistrate institutes cash bail in a case, I developed a countywide policy entitling defendants to a bail modification hearing within 72 hours, during which most bail amounts can be reduced or eliminated.
I will continue to advocate for all judges to utilize cash bail only if an individual before them represents a grave risk to public safety, and will work with our state officials in Harrisburg and at the Supreme Court to continue to reform our bail system overall.
Treating Addiction as a Mental Health Issue
It’s well past time that we recognize substance abuse disorder isn’t a moral shortcoming or criminal violation: it’s a dangerous disease that can affect anyone at any time. Our county justice system should help those suffering from addiction access the holistic treatments they need to rehabilitate, not lock them away to continue to suffer. Jails aren’t substitutes for hospitals, clinics, or therapies of any kind.
Drug Court and other diversionary, treatment-focused programs have helped thousands of individuals get the support they need to leave the justice system safer and healthier than when they entered. Oftentimes, these programs don’t require someone to be incarcerated or held in a county facility; instead, they can be released back into their communities to complete their mandated programs with supervision.
“I’ve fought hard to protect and promote the civil rights of all Allegheny County residents. Now more than ever, we need to make sure that our police officers have the complete training needed to do their jobs safely and fairly, and always hold them accountable to the public.”
Standardizing the Rules Governing “Use of Force”
The ability of county law enforcement officers to use force – and particularly deadly force – in executing their responsibilities to public safety is one of the most powerful rights our society grants to any official. Should an officer decide that “force” is necessary for an interaction with a member of the public, we allow them to forever change, and in some instances take that person’s life.
Alarmingly, there is no universally-agreed upon definition for the use of force, or a standard set of guidelines for its appropriate implementation. If an officer feels there is a credible threat to their safety or the safety of others, they have the leeway to employ any level of force they see fit to mitigate it. This discretionary scope is often far too broad, and I believe must be limited.
Crafting a uniform definition for the “use of force” for law enforcement to adhere to is nearly impossible, given that every situation where it can be employed is distinct. However, my office has and will continue to help police departments develop standard training procedures that can more specifically govern their employment in the field.
Specifically, my office has worked with our County’s Chiefs of Police to develop “Model Policies” for a variety of situations – especially regarding circumstances where force is apparently required. While our models have been distributed to every department in the county to utilize during training, simple recommendations like these aren’t enough: we need stronger guidelines.
We will continue to work with everyone involved in our justice system – police officers, county officials, community leaders, and our allies in Harrisburg and across the county – to better develop the guidelines governing use of force.
These guidelines will keep members of the public – and the police officers who risk their lives for our common good – safe and limit the situations in which excessive, life-altering force is employed.
Holding Law Enforcement Accountable
There are many tragic examples of our existing Use of Force guidelines being too broad to adequately hold police officers accountable if and when they employ incorrectly. These circumstances erode public trust in our police and in our justice system at-large and do little to advance public safety. In fact, when officers aren’t held responsible for inappropriately exercising force, it makes us all less safe.
Continuing to standardize mandatory training procedures is an important step towards reducing cases of unnecessary force and saving lives. Whenever an officer uses a high level of force on the job, my office will demand full transparency from their department on every detail of the episode in question, to determine if our agreed-upon procedures were followed correctly.
Further, all county departments must track every instance of the use of deadly force, and those records must be easily available to evaluate patterns surrounding the employment of force. If those patterns demonstrate certain officers and departments consistently choose not to follow our training, we must hold them accountable.
All details of potential police misconduct, especially those involving the use of force, must be seriously and completely evaluated. If a law enforcement officer is found to have violated their training and exercised force improperly, my office will prosecute them to the fullest extent possible.
Welcoming The “Clean Slate” Law
Being convicted of a crime is a life-altering situation, and for low-level charges, and individual’s interaction with our justice system shouldn’t consign them to a life of social stigma, limited job prospects, and potential poverty. I was a strong supporter of the passage of the recent statewide Clean Slate Law, which expunges certain non-violent offenses from a person’s record after 10 years.
Every element of our justice system – from our County’s processes to our State’s laws – should be designed to help offenders rehabilitate. Our local Diversionary Courts help individuals avoid a “rap sheet” when they first enter the justice system, and this new law helps others when they exit. Alongside our system’s other tools, Clean Slate gives Allegheny County residents who’ve left the justice system the tools they need to contribute to their communities and sustainably rehabilitate.
Body Cameras as a Civil Rights Tool
As a strong proponent of the increased use of contemporary technology in all aspects of our justice system, I believe body cameras should be used across the board by police departments: they keep both citizens and law enforcement officials safe during their interactions.
If an encounter between them is in question, the best evidence is often its video footage. To make sure the civil rights both police and public are upheld, we need this footage to understand the full details of any encounter between private citizens and police officers, and body cameras provide invaluable help in this process.
I wholeheartedly support Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert’s mandate that all 900 city officers be equipped with body cameras by the end of 2019 and did my best to help facilitate their introduction into our region at scale.
In 2017, I worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle in Harrisburg to pass Act 22, which made wearing body cameras safer for police officers and led to their widespread adoption countywide.
Protecting the LGBTQIA+ Community
I chose a career in public service because I strongly believe in the fight for equality and justice for all – whenever and wherever those rights are disregarded or violated.
I was one of the first county officials to push to classify crimes against members of the LGBTQIA+ community as what they are – hate crimes – and prosecute their perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.
Members of minority communities, especially our friends in the LGBTQIA+ community, should have their dignity and personal identity respected during any interaction with the justice system. I’m proud to say I was the first countywide official to publish guidance on the proper use of preferred personal pronouns by law enforcement officers when working with LGBTQIA+ residents.