Matt Dugan has worked in Allegheny County’s Criminal Justice System for 16 years, holding nearly every attorney position in the District Attorney’s Office during that time.
He was the youngest in a lawyer’s room before the trial, and he was one of the most experienced people, trying murder charges before the jury.
For the past three years, Dugan has served as chief public officer, appointed by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in 2020, working to bring more diversity, education, equality and resources to the office.
But Dugan says he wants more.
“The truth is that the process was not designed to be managed by the public prosecutor’s office. The real leader of the criminal justice system is the district attorney,” Dugan said in an interview last week.
Dugan, a Democrat, is looking to unseat District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who announced last month that he would seek a seventh term in office.
“It will be a very difficult task for us. It cannot be denied that he (Zappala) has a recognizable name. He has been in this position for 24 years, but he is very eager for a change in this district,” said Dugan, 43 years old from Moon Township.
In the last race for district attorney in 2019, former assistant attorney general Lisa Middleman challenged Zappala in the general election. He entered the race in June after Zappala won first place on both tickets and, despite entering the race late, received 43% of the vote in November.
As DA, Dugan said he will increase the office’s accountability and transparency, work to reverse racism in the criminal justice system and try to make real change for low-level criminals. it prevents them from getting to the criminal court in the first place.
While Dugan acknowledged Zappala’s success early in his tenure in creating special courts such as mental health, veterans’ court, drug court and others, Dugan said those examples are no longer valid.
“It’s not really misleading,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to get people back on their feet. We need to give people real examples in the criminal justice system.”
Dugan added: “I’m not saying we don’t judge people. We do, but we give them the opportunity to work through the programs and use the resources that the courts and the Department of Social Services can offer. And we can give people the chance to get their lives back without ever seeking a criminal conviction.
But Dugan said he will aggressively prosecute serious crimes while working to improve relations between the DA’s office and law enforcement.
“We want more resources to help officers do their jobs, to help the most vulnerable people in our society,” Dugan said. “I think one of the resources we can offer police officers across the county is a better relationship with the district attorney’s office — know that we’re going to do it, efficiently and reliably.” serious crime if caught.”
Dugan said he will focus on building partnerships with all stakeholders in the criminal justice system, including mental health professionals, community leaders, political organizations and law enforcement. law.
Zappala has had a rocky relationship with city leaders in the past, including criticizing former Mayor Bill Peduto and current mayor Ed Gainey.
According to Dugan, the criminal justice system needs to address the underlying factors that bring people in, including drug use, impairments untreated mental illness and poverty.
“We’re talking about preventative measures, about moving forward with these issues,” Dugan said. “We need to rethink why a felony conviction is a lifelong stain on someone’s record that prohibits employment, affects the future economy, affects taxpayers in Allegheny. County and state.”
Dugan agrees Get that buzz in the city should be viewed as a public health emergency.
“We know that violent crime is very real in some areas. And we also know that those groups share special characteristics, a lack of resources, a lack of stability,” Dugan said. “We have the opportunity in 2023 with a new district administration coming in, with a new mayor … and a dedicated Ministry of Public Services.
“For possibly the first time in the history of Allegheny County, you can have those agencies work together to deal with crime,” he said.
Dugan criticized Zappala – especially for comments he made when his bid for re-election was announced. Zappala said violent crime is on the rise in the city, and something needs to be done about it.
“They have the opportunity to voice their opinions and offer solutions (for) before the election season,” said Dugan. “But we have not heard anything from that office. And more to the point, we haven’t heard any new ideas about how to solve these problems.
Dugan said he believes the district attorney must have a strong presence in the community and build relationships with relevant stakeholders to make changes.
“We need to build trust in neighborhoods so that when violent crimes do occur, people feel safe and confident that they can come to the police. from the district attorney’s office and work to solve those cases,” Dugan said.
“That will only come after you work hard to participate and gain the trust of the people,” he added. “Boots are no longer on the ground. It’s not the same ‘tough on crime’ policies that we’ve seen fail in the past.”
Dugan said he would change the way low-level crimes are handled.
“The district attorney has the discretion to decide what and how to prosecute crimes in the district,” he said.
He doesn’t support low-level marijuana possession charges, and he thinks there should be treatment for people struggling with heroin and fentanyl addiction.
Dugan also emphasized the need for transparency.
“That office, unfortunately, no longer has the benefit of doubting the public and their trust,” he said.
In his first 100 days, Dugan said his administration would create an “integrity unit” to review convictions if there are questions about guilt or new evidence.
“Demonstrating integrity is key to public confidence in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Dugan said he acknowledges that racism exists — in the police and in the courtroom.
In discussing that with the attorney general’s office, Dugan said he implemented anti-bias training and made a concerted effort to have diversity. lawyer in the office.
“Multiple agents are very important in today’s workforce, and I can’t think of a place where that’s more important than in the criminal justice system where we see people overreacting. color in the system,” he said.
Dugan said he hopes to be labeled as a lawyer going forward, but he sees himself conducting “more of a practice-thinking.”
“I don’t feel the need to own any kind of name, but we are coming with new ideas, and we are coming to find the change of this system.”
Paula Reed Ward is a columnist for the Tribune-Review. You can contact Paula by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter .