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

Cumberland County’s District Attorney candidates participated in a second forum on May 24 at the University of Southern Maine.

More details emerged during the event organized by the ACLU of Maine and community partners, including key differences between the Democrats competing in the June 12 primary election.

Jon Gale argued he had the longest experience as an attorney, and highlighted his close relationships with law enforcement, advocates, defense attorneys, and other members of the Cumberland County community.

Seth Levy wants to create what he called a “dual track” for prosecution — a traditional track for serious crimes and another for pre-prosecution support and diversion for low-level offenses. He proposed sending a support team into the Cumberland County Jail to assess defendants and connect them with services and resources.

Levy is a survivor of childhood sexual assault and said the system worked for him, experiences that motivate his work and candidacy.

Frayla Tarpinian said her administrative experience in a prosecutor’s office sets her apart, including grant-writing and managing staff and caseloads. She also supports replacing cash bail with risk assessments, and has been a vocal proponent for Medicaid expansion to address the opioid and mental health crises as public health issues.

Republican Randall Bates said his office would focus on “balanced” prosecution, citing his experiences as a Yarmouth town councillor and as defense counsel in the federal court system as distinguishing him from his opponents.

Bates said racial disparity and bias in Maine’s justice system was “impossible” to tackle, though he proposed training and education as remedies. He also expressed a preference for treatment and rehabilitation after conviction, suggesting the federal halfway house system as a potential model to emulate.

Bates acknowledged cash bail disproportionately impacts the poor and should not be used for low-level offenses. However, he believes it’s necessary to set high bail amounts for serious crimes.

Gale and Levy agree. But cash bail necessarily reserves pretrial incarceration solely on the basis of wealth. That’s why the candidates oppose it for low-level offenses. Take Harvey Weinstein, for example, who stands accused of sexually assaulting over 80 women. This week, Weinstein posted his $1 million bail and was released on electronic monitoring.

The candidates say they’ve learned important lessons and are ready to chart a new course for addressing low-level offenses. But when it comes to the uncomfortable topic of violence, there has been comparatively little reflection.

Levy said some people engage in “criminal thinking” but others “need help.” Bates said his office would decide who had “made a mistake with substance abuse” and who was a “criminal with a substance abuse problem.”

Gale said there’s an “enormous difference” when it comes to violent crime, arguing he would divert someone who broke into a car to support an opioid habit but not someone whose cocaine use led them to commit armed robbery.

(Independent candidate Jonathan Sahrbeck left 15 minutes into the forum to attend a panel.)

The candidates promise more aggressive prosecution in this area, particularly with regards to domestic and sexual violence.

It may be politically convenient and morally satisfying to maintain a tough-on-crime attitude on violence, but at what cost do we avoid challenging this orthodoxy?

Violent and nonviolent crime survivors believed prison was more likely to make offenders commit new crimes than rehabilitate them by a three-to-one margin, according to one major study from 2016. A majority favored treatment and addressing root causes of offenses.

They acknowledge, as the candidates have repeatedly, that rehabilitation is nonexistent in prison, whether for addiction, mental illness, or violent behavior.

We also know that “hurt people hurt people.” Rates of childhood trauma, which have been linked to illness and antisocial behavior later in life, are high among prison populations. And most entering prisons struggle with poverty and illness before and after incarceration.

This neglect, and the hazards of a lifelong felony conviction, do not put people on paths to transformation; they beget cycles of incarceration and destitution. One new government study found 83 percent of people released from prison in 2005 across 30 states were rearrested within nine years.

Our response to violence is too important to avoid in this race and deserves the same careful examination as each candidate has so willingly offered on more sympathetic cases.

 

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