Brian Sonenstein is a reporter covering incarceration and the prison abolition movement. He is a columnist for the Portland Phoenix, co-founder of, and co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast.


Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse in Portland

In 2019, either Jon Gale or Jonathan Sahrbeck will have jurisdiction over a huge swath of Maine’s justice system as Cumberland County’s next district attorney. (Randall J. Bates, the Republican candidate, dropped out of the race this week.)


Thankfully, our community has taken advantage of opportunities to ask the candidates for their views on substance use disorder, mental illness, nonviolent offenses, and juvenile detention. But with time running out, it’s time to ask more difficult questions.


The following is not a comprehensive list of questions but an example of how we can dive deeper into the preferences and approaches of each candidate. The Phoenix has asked some of these questions, but we should all be asking them. The next DA's answer's will have significant consequences for any of us — especially those who are marginalized in society — who live here and who may come into contact with the system.


1. What’s the plan for everyone who is accused and/or convicted of crimes other than low-level, nonviolent offenses? For too long, the reform debate has revolved around “good” and “bad” people. Rather than splitting hairs over who should be harmed by the system, we should be focused on outcomes and asking whether any of this benefits our communities. Maine is a small-time incarcerator compared to the rest of the nation, but our jails and prisons are filled with people who are sick, poor, and not white. Most of them will leave prison face a litany of obstacles to success that breed generational cycles of poverty, illness, and incarceration. Wherever DA’s believe people deserve this treatment, they should be made to explain why in detail.


2. What will you do about the disproportionate number of people of color in our jail and prisons and the rising incarceration of women? The Prison Policy Initiative shows that incarceration rates for Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Hispanic people in Maine are greater than that of whites, who make the overwhelming majority of our community. Meanwhile, the rate at which women are incarcerated has tripled between 2010 and 2015. Police are most often blamed for this (and rightfully so) but DA’s are responsible, too: they have wide latitude to decide when and whether to press charges and seek incarceration after those arrests.


3. Should probation really be the default alternative to incarceration? Probation is used to keep people out of prisons, yet it’s often full of traps that lead to incarceration. Intense supervision and stringent conditions that last for years can severely hinder efforts for rehabilitation and reintegration. For prosecutors, it can be an easy and attractive alternative to incarceration, but it still leaves many with a record and, in absence of supportive services, an even more difficult life. The next DA should be encouraged to avoid incarceration, but they should be made to contend with probation’s shortcomings and devise other non-punitive alternatives.


4. If jails force people into dangerous opioid withdrawal and treatment is nonexistent in prisons, will you continue to send vulnerable people into the system? Our jail refuses to provide medication-assisted treatment, which uses medication to block cravings and prevent life-threatening withdrawal for people with opioid use disorder. There’s virtually no treatment in prison for them, either. Without MAT, they come home at high risk of overdose and death. If the police and prisons are determined to put sick people in a dangerous position, prosecutors should be made to answer for forcing any of them — no matter their crime — into it.


5. Now that marijuana is legal, will the next DA help those victims of the war on drugs? Some states have passed laws to expunge certain marijuana convictions to help reduce the harm of the drug war now that laws have changed. But such relief is still out of reach for many, particularly the poor. Maine doesn’t have an expungement law, but we can seal convictions. Our DA could potentially create an accessible program for those impacted in our community. Will they?


6. Will you incarcerate victims of rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking to compel them to cooperate with investigations? Jonathan Sahrbeck, who currently leads human trafficking prosecutions in our county’s DA’s office, recently jailed a rape victim and asylee in an attempt to coerce her to testify against her captors. It is practically consensus among those working with trafficking victims that such actions are harmful, retraumatizing, and counterproductive to justice. Sahrbeck should be put on the spot about his choice. Gale told the Phoenix he wouldn’t do it (in a sit-down interview). Bates hasn’t spoken on the subject.

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