2024 Primary

‘If our community’s not safe, nothing else matters’: A Q&A with York County DA and attorney general candidate Dave Sunday

The Republican attorney general candidate talks with City & State about his goals for the office.

York County District Attorney and 2024 attorney general candidate Dave Sunday.

York County District Attorney and 2024 attorney general candidate Dave Sunday. Dave Sunday for Attorney General

As he seeks the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania’s race for attorney general, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday is hoping that his experiences as a Navy veteran, a UPS driver and as DA will help lead him to a victory in the GOP primary race on April 23.

Sunday, who has served as York County’s top prosecutor since 2018, received the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s endorsement in January. He recently spoke with City & State about public safety in Pennsylvania, how the next AG should handle new developments in artificial intelligence and tech, as well as how he hopes to balance the concepts of accountability and redemption if elected AG.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What are some of the top issues that you think the next AG has to address?

To start with, it’s just a reality of human life that if we are not safe, if children aren’t safe, then nothing else matters. No economic investments will matter. I played a lot of basketball – I had a coach who always told us that we had to make sure we could do bounce passes before we dunk. As a society, we need to get back to basics. The attorney general’s office has multiple different units and divisions – there are hundreds of thoughtful, smart attorneys who work there every day defending statutes, defending lawsuits, handling tax issues and consumer protection.

What we need is someone that can bring people together, collaborate, make the community safer and put us in a position where we can launch off of it and start doing all these advanced things that people want to do in society. 

I’m not exaggerating with the fentanyl epidemic. When I was a kid, if you screwed up, you might have a hangover. In today’s world – and I’m not saying this for dramatic flair – when a kid messes up, they literally could die in that moment in time. I’m a guy who has come through the system, working with parents whose children have died under those circumstances. So I have personally seen – to the count of hundreds – the devastating impact of that. When you combine that with what we are seeing with social media and artificial intelligence, we have a recipe for disaster.

My mission and vision is to allow the attorney general’s office to be robust and professional and thoughtful in all of its duties. My personal mission is to do everything I can to keep children and families safe. Period.

What role do you see the AG playing in monitoring developments in new technologies like artificial intelligence?

I’ll give you an example: We recently had a huge drug bust in York – we made an arrest where an individual was utilizing the dark web to traffic fentanyl literally throughout the entire country, every state – every single state. When you see, unfortunately, how easy it is for young people to figure that out and to make hundreds of thousands of dollars doing it, then we know that human nature will create situations where we’re going to see more and more of that. If we catch one, how many more are out there doing it? We have got to be at the tip of the spear with regard to technology and getting ahead of these issues. 

Pennsylvania has the third-highest percentage of senior citizens in the country. Elder abuse is a whole other topic. Because we have so many seniors on fixed incomes, they are literally targeted all day, every single day, by scammers. It’s the reality. What has happened though, is what people don’t understand is how sophisticated the scammers are. I’m sure you probably agree with me that it doesn’t matter – you can be 99 years old, and you have every right to do whatever you want with the money you earn through the course of your life. If you want to take it and play paper football with your money, you can do it. It’s up to you, whatever you want to do, and no one has a right to take that from you. When we start mixing AI into it, it gets even worse, because what we can see now are people using AI to mimic family members’ voices, voices that are people that the seniors know. So whereas before the phone calls were clearly from some unknown person, AI can create the same voice as someone that they know, love and trust. We’ve got to make sure that we are at the tip of the spear technologically as we attack these issues.

I want to circle back to the concept of accountability and redemption. What does that look like in practice and how did you settle on that idea?

We recognized very quickly that when you look at who is causing crime in your community, obviously, there are first offenders. But then there’s a large group of people coming out of prison who are committing crimes. If your goal is safer communities, you have to stop it everywhere it is. Very few people get life sentences or hundred-year sentences. So most offenders will go in and they’ll come back out. And of the 95% that come out, half will go back in within three years. 

The main catalyst for people failing when they come back out … is whether or not they have a job. When I worked at UPS, I worked with guys and girls who had made mistakes in life and they were held accountable. These aren’t people who were released for fun. They were held accountable, they got out of prison and they were some of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in my life. When I joined the Navy, I was 18, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I didn’t really have a lot of direction at that time. For me, personally, I remember the pride I felt in knowing that I could change my circumstances. I remember that with my friends at UPS who started working there – they realized like, “Hey, I don’t need the government to lift me out of my problem, I have the power within to do it.” I never forgot that.

We started a reentry coalition, and the goal of the reentry coalition is to basically help people who are coming out of prison. That includes substance abuse counseling, mental health counseling, career counseling and helping connect people with jobs. What we’ve discovered is that not only does it work, but in my opinion, it’s the key to safe communities and changing everything.

Through our approach of accountability and redemption, we have seen crime go down in York County by 41% since the 10-year high. That will be a 30% decline since I have been elected. We’ve seen our opioid overdose deaths drop by 26%, even though they’ve gone up statewide. The thing about this, as well, is that when people are working, you’re keeping families together. Their children are seeing that their parents can do it. They’re staying off drugs, they’re paying back restitution, they’re paying their taxes. 

People have to be held accountable. I’ll give you an example: We have tons of drug treatment courts. I refer to them as accountability courts, because there are a lot of people who would rather sit in a prison cell than go through an accountability court, because you have to get a job, you have to show up in court – you’re held accountable. But what we’ve discovered is that people who successfully do that, on the other end, the recidivism drops drastically.

When we talk about our Group Violence Intervention team – this is a team made up of our police commissioner, the mayor, the faith-based community in the city, probation, parole. We have what are called credible messengers – people who go out and talk to the community. At the same time, we have the police, the DA’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The message we give to gang members is: We will help you if you’ll take it, but we will hold you accountable. We’ve discovered the reason why those homicides have dropped drastically and the gang violence has dropped drastically is because we follow through with it. 

People now understand that there will be accountability. It will happen. If that’s a gun charge, they’re gonna get prosecuted for a gun charge. If it’s shooting someone, we’re gonna prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. 

What would you like voters to know about you that they might not know already?

When people are in leadership positions, they draw upon their personal experience when they’re working through challenges. I want people to know that my experience is: I’m a guy who was born and raised in Pennsylvania. My family’s from the coal region in Shamokin. I joined the Navy as an enlisted guy, traveled the world, worked with UPS all through college and law school. I’m a guy who believes that you have to hold people accountable. And at the other end of that, we do have to embrace redemption.