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Pennsylvania Prosecutors Cash in on Low-Level Drug Crimes

Examples include Rachel Rollins of Boston, Kim Ogg of Houston, Joe Gonzales of San Antonio, and Dan Satterberg of Seattle.

Bucking this trend in a major way is Democratic district attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Appeal pored over 30,000 criminal docket entries for Allegheny County from 2017 and discovered some extremely disturbing numbers. For that year alone, over 1,700 low-level, misdemeanor drug cases were referred to his office for prosecution. Even more disturbing, Zeppala actually prosecuted over 90 percent of those referred cases. The convictees were found to have accrued over $2 million in court-imposed debt resulting from their convictions.

As is usually the case, the overwhelming majority of those arrested and prosecuted for those low level misdemeanor drug cases were people of color and the city’s poorest citizens.

Northwestern University’s law and health sciences professor Leo Beletsky is less than enamored by Zeppala’s choice to waste law enforcement monies better used for more serious offenses. In his words: “This is just a gross misallocation of resources. If you talk to [police and prosecutors] one on one, they will rightly tell you that [prosecuting low level drug cases] is shoveling shit against the tide. This is a futile exercise.”

These 1,700 plus cases primarily resulted in probations or just fines and fees after convictions.

Of the remainder, persons of color were jailed far more often than whites after being convicted. Failure to pay these fines and fees results in driver’s license suspensions for a lucky few. Many others will suffer imprisonment resulting from probation revocations with additional fines and fees for the revocation proceedings.

Also, recidivism rates among that group of more than 1,700 people ran approximately 33 percent, very high for a low-level misdemeanor conviction.  


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