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In Pennsylvania, a Dearth of Challengers in DA Races

In the 49 Pennsylvania counties with district attorney elections this year, less than one-third — just 14 counties — drew contested election races, Bolts magazine reports. In the 35 counties with uncontested races, the candidates — typically incumbents, but in six cases newcomers — are poised to take office without facing much scrutiny into their policies. Unopposed DA races are common nationwide. It's often difficult for attorneys to challenge a sitting prosecutor and risk professional retaliation should they lose, especially in smaller communities. But Pennsylvania's situation appears particularly notable, compared to just four years ago when 24 of the 49 counties drew multiple major-party candidates.

One example where the lack of competition seems striking is in Lycoming County, where Tom Marino is running unopposed for a job he held more than two decades ago. In the meantime, Marino served in Congress and was President Trump's nominee as drug czar. That nomination was derailed after The Washington Post and 60 Minutes reported that he pushed legislation that made opioids more readily available. The investigation revealed that Marino collaborated with the pharmaceutical industry to draft language that gutted the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to go after large drug companies suspected of fueling the crisis, all while receiving big donations. His stance drew condemnation back home in Lycoming. But this year he will enter office on an unchallenged platform to get tough on offenders, including those caught selling "drugs (that) are making their way into our neighborhoods." “Many people just don’t know all of the power that district attorneys actually possess,” says Danitra Sherman, the deputy advocacy and policy director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “As voters, we often get excited about presidential elections, but not so much about local races, or state races at times, when those that hold positions at these levels have more say on and decision making power over the day-to-day life.” The state ACLU launched a voter education drive on the role of DAs in 2017, and in 2019 they sent out questionnaires to candidates, asking for their views on matters ranging from sentencing to bail, but many did not reply. Sherman says they recently sent out questionnaires to some candidates again this year.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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