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Portland District Attorney Candidates at Odds on Even Basic Reform Steps

Portland district attorney candidates at odds on even basic reform steps.

2018 Election Preview: District attorney of Cumberland County, Maine

Daniel Nichanian

Oct. 31 updateDemocratic nominee Jon Gale has dropped out over allegations of sexual misconduct. Independent Jonathan Sahrbeck is now the only active candidate, since Republican nominee Randall Bates dropped out in September. (Bates’s and Gale’s names remain on the ballot.)

Many candidates for prosecutor this year make some rhetorical concessions to criminal justice reform, whatever their broader platform. But Jonathan Sahrbeck’s responses to an ACLU questionnaire reflect a staunch embrace of the status quo. He uses scare quotes around “mass incarceration” and dismisses even a need for bias training or for more data on racial disparities. “We do not base prosecution on race in any way shape or form,” he writes of the Cumberland County DA’s office, where he works. “Tracking such information would be unnecessary.” Asked what changes he would implement, he calls for harsher prosecution of some offenses and easier pretrial detention.

Sahrbeck is running for DA of Cumberland County (which includes Portland) as an independent. He faces Democrat Jon Gale, a defense attorney and former prosecutor. Stephanie Anderson has served as the county’s Republican DA since 1991. She retired this year, and Republican nominee Randall Bates dropped out of the race last week.

Sahrbeck is running on aggressively prosecuting sex trafficking and prostitution. Writing in the Portland Phoenix, Brian Sonenstein has pointed to a tension between Sahrbeck’s commitment to not stigmatize sex workers (“It is vital those on the front lines see these women as victims instead of criminals,” Sahrbeck writes on his website) and his actions as a prosecutor. Sahrbeck charged a woman who was seeking asylum “with engaging in prostitution despite clear indications she was a victim of sex trafficking,” but “none of [her] abusers were arrested.”

Gale, the Democrat, supports reforming prosecutorial practices. “The changes people are seeking addressing economic and racial disparity in sentencing, encouraging treatment and diversion away from convictions, and reducing crime by addressing causes rather than simply throwing people in jail—that’s been my fight for years as a defense attorney,” he told the Bangor Daily News. He is running on making greater use of substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, as well as restorative justice and diversion programs. “We are more effective at reducing crime by addressing the causes than by simply throwing people in jail,” he told the ACLU. “The more we move away from punishment of addicted people, the better.” Unlike Sahrbeck, he mentions mass incarceration and “systemic bias and racism” as problems to be addressed. He commits to “dramatically reducing” the use of cash bail—but not to fully eliminating it. Gale also answered in the negative to a number of ACLU questions about loosening conditions of release, for instance by limiting random searches.

published on Oct. 4, 2018