On June 12, Cumberland County Democrats will nominate their candidate for District Attorney, who will compete against Republican Randall Bates and independent Jonathan Sahrbeck in November’s general election.
Visit The Phoenix's website to read in-depth interviews with each of the Democratic candidates regarding their views on prosecuting violent offenses, oversight and transparency, implementing reforms, and more.
The ACLU of Maine created DAforME.com, where voters can learn about the DA’s office and compare candidates’ stances on the issues. Previous editions of this column, available online, also contain analysis of their platforms.
The unusually high level of interest in this race is evidence the public understands the office’s impact on Maine’s justice system. All three Democrats have reform platforms that, if faithfully implemented, could significantly reduce our use of incarceration and increase our focus on treatment and rehabilitation.
Candidates Jonathan Gale, Frayla Tarpinian, and Seth Levy recognize a need to explore non-punitive responses to harm, like pre-conviction alternatives to incarceration and the use of restorative justice practices.
There are important differences in policy and perspective between Gale, Tarpinian, and Levy that reform-minded Democrats should carefully consider before making their choice.
Jonathan Gale has experience both as a prosecutor and defense counsel. He was an Assistant District Attorney in Aroostook and York counties, where he handled a wide range of cases including juvenile court and appeals.
Gale has served as court-appointed counsel for indigent clients and has been a defense attorney since 2004. He was lead attorney for the Black Lives Matter protesters arrested for a nonviolent direct action protest on Commercial Street in the summer of 2016.
In our interview, Gale explained how he would have handled that case differently if he was the DA, and touched on several instances where prosecutors foundered.
Gale supports ending cash bail for low-level offenses but not for more serious offenses.
He said he would support ending cash bail entirely “if we had Super Maine Pretrial Services, where there are all these different ways where we’re on top of you at all times to ensure [you comply with your terms of release]."
"Short of that, I don’t feel that if we are releasing that person without a cash incentive, I don’t think we’re keeping people as safe as we could.”
“In an ideal world we’d go cashless and all-or-nothing with a very powerful system in place,” he said, adding, “We’re not even close to having that system.”
Gale supports safe injection sites. He does not support closing Long Creek “until and unless better options are funded and available.”
Gale opposes decriminalizing voluntary sex work, would not decline to prosecute marijuana charges, and wouldn’t dispose of retail theft cases, which affect predominantly poor people.
Frayla Tarpinian has worked in the Kennebec County District Attorney's Office since 2013. She leads the Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse Unit.
Tarpinian cites her experience with office administration and staff/case management as something that sets her apart from her opponents, and said if a Democrat takes office next year, they will have to be able to handle this while simultaneously implementing reforms.
She also has experience as a defense attorney and represented indigent clients for five years. She is a member of the Veterans Court and Co-Occurring Disorders Court, a diversion court that works with people with severe substance abuse and mental illness facing felony charges.
Tarpinian is the only woman and the only out LGBTQ candidate in the race. She supports ending cash bail entirely and replacing it with comprehensive risk assessment and pretrial services. She also supports decriminalizing voluntary sex work.
Tarpinian is aware that many domestic and sex offenses are not reported and wants to build trust in the system by prosecuting them more aggressively.
When asked to expound her views on prosecuting those offenses in light of her reform platform, Tarpinian said an aggressive approach was necessary to defend the interests of the state.
“If we had something other than jail, that would be great, but we don’t have that right now. [...] And frequently, in domestic violence cases, by the time that the prosecution is over, frequently my victims are no longer cooperating with me and do not want me to proceed in the case.”
“I understand why and/or I accept their position about prosecution at that point. Maybe they have forgiven and moved on and they don’t want to deal with it anymore, that’s a completely understandable position,” she said. “But if somebody’s injured them, there needs to be a consequence.”
Tarpinian does not support closing Long Creek absent a viable and fully funded alternative in its place.
Seth Levy is a defense attorney specializing in clients with mental illness and substance abuse disorders, as well as veterans and those struggling with poverty. He’s served as a guardian ad litem for children and represented parents in child protective cases.
Levy has practiced law for around 14 years and is the only Democrat without prosecutor experience. This has its advantages and disadvantages. Levy has a fresh and ambitious approach to the office, but he’s not as familiar with the inner workings of the job as his opponents.
Levy serves on the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court. His client was the first to participate in the court when it began in 2006 and he helps review its applications.
He also has extensive experience implementing restorative justice practices and wants to expand their use beyond the juvenile realm and into adult cases.
Levy was a victim of a childhood sexual assault, which he has been open about throughout the campaign. He has said it motivates his work as an attorney and reinforces his belief that the system can help victims find their voice after a violent assault, as it helped him.
When asked about his approach to prosecuting such crimes, Levy said he didn’t want to “come across as someone who has this zealot-like approach.” But they’re important to him, he said, and while he has his own opinions — including that some offenders are beyond rehabilitation — he is committed to keeping an open mind and not letting his experience drive policy.
“I’m not sure that the policy of incarcerating someone for the benefit of public safety is effective,” Levy said. “I do think there is something about this idea that, in some cases, there is a need for punishment and retribution just for itself.”
Levy supports ending cash bail for low-level offenses but would use it for more serious offenses. He supports closing Long Creek and wants the office to engage in aggressive fundraising and grant-writing to establish intervention programs that connect people with housing, employment, health care, and other services.
While he’s undecided on safe injection sites, he said he would not oppose them or prosecute those who use them. He supports medically-assisted treatment in jails and prisons and said he would advocate for it while in office.
“We are pushing this agenda, and that’s great, but we have got to do it right,” he said. “Because people are open to it. And if we don’t do it right, then the pendulum could swing.”
The Phoenix typically doesn't endorse in primary elections, but this is a decision we'll be watching closely as one of these three candidates continues their campaign to November.