For the first time in 28 years, Cumberland County will have a new district attorney.

Stephanie Anderson, who took office in 1991 and has been re-elected six times, is not seeking another term. Two people – a criminal defense attorney and a prosecutor – are vying for her job on the November ballot. Her successor will be the head of Maine’s busiest prosecutorial district at a time when national surveys show that a majority of people feel that the criminal justice system needs significant reforms, including a shift in focus from incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation.

Neither of the two men seeking the office in Cumberland County is promising dramatic changes, although both emphasized a need to find new ways to address the opioid epidemic.

Jon Gale, a Portland Democrat who runs a solo defense practice, is campaigning on the need for more diversion programs for people with addiction and mental health issues and less cash bail. Jonathan Sahrbeck, a Cape Elizabeth independent who is a current assistant district attorney in Anderson’s office, is pledging to take a more active role in preventing addiction and a more aggressive stance on holding people charged with violent crimes.

As the head prosecutor in Maine’s most populous county, the winner will make decisions about important criminal cases and set law enforcement priorities. The Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office handled more than 10,000 criminal cases in 2017.

The district attorney holds a four-year term and oversees a staff of 50 people. Twenty are attorneys, who are paid by the state. Salaries for 30 other employees and operational costs are included in the county budget and total $1.9 million this year.

The pay scale for the district attorney job ranges from $82,000 to $118,000, Anderson said.

In Cumberland County, residents will see three names on the ballot under district attorney, but only two have active campaigns. Republican Randall Bates of Yarmouth withdrew from the race in September.

Both Gale and Sahrbeck identified the opioid crisis as a top priority, saying they often see a relationship between addiction and crime from their respective sides of the courtroom. Drug overdoses continued to claim nearly one life per day in Maine during the first six months of 2018.

Gale, 51, said he wants to see more defendants head to treatment programs instead of jail. He said he would continue current practices like deferred dispositions and drug court to do that, but he also would be interested in mirroring a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. That initiative diverts people to treatment before they are booked and charged with a crime, instead of after they have entered a guilty plea in court. In Seattle, where LEAD was pioneered, eligible offenses include low-level drug crimes and engaging in prostitution.

Similar programs have been discussed or founded in Maine, including Operation Hope in Scarborough. Bangor launched a LEAD program last year, but the Bangor Daily News reported the police department has struggled to get it off the ground.

“The issue is, can we persuade a majority in Augusta to support programs like this?” Gale said. “I think the answer is absolutely. It is not a political issue. It is a matter of pragmatism.”

Sahrbeck, 39, estimated that 75 percent of the cases in Cumberland County have a connection to substance abuse disorder or mental health. He said he would ramp up the district attorney’s role in prevention, spending more time in the community talking about the causes and costs of addiction. He said he would be open to talking about diversion programs like LEAD, and he pointed to deferred dispositions as a valuable tool already used in the office.

“I don’t think that’s a thing that’s being underutilized at all from our office,” he said. “I don’t think I would make too many changes when it comes to how we prosecute cases.”

BAIL ISSUE

Both candidates said they would not make dramatic staffing or structural changes to the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office.

Sahrbeck, who is assigned to human trafficking cases, said he would add a prosecutor and other staff to the current domestic violence unit. He would also try to replicate a practice he saw while working as a prosecutor in Massachusetts called a “dangerousness hearing,” where a judge can decide a defendant will be held without bail until trial. Maine has a similar option for murder cases, but Sahrbeck said he would like to expand that to cases involving domestic violence, repeat drunken driving and gun use.

Sahrbeck said he would not pursue other changes to the bail code. He said the prosecutors in Cumberland Country do not seek unreasonable bail, and proposals to reduce or eliminate cash bail for certain misdemeanor offenses do not offer alternatives for when defendants skip their court hearings. Anderson is one of the prosecutors who opposed a previous proposal to eliminate cash bail in Maine.

“I think it’s a valuable thing for defendants to have a stake when it comes to ensuring that they show up to court and that they don’t commit any other crimes,” Sahrbeck said.

Gale said Maine is not ready to eliminate cash bail entirely as some other states have done, in part because pretrial services would need to be expanded dramatically to monitor defendants. But he pledged that he would not seek cash bail for people who are charged with misdemeanors but are not a risk to public safety. He argued that even low cash bail – $100 or $200 – could mean a person sits in jail for weeks waiting for his or her next court date for a minor offense.

“It punishes people who are poor,” he said.

Both candidates have answered questions from the ACLU of Maine about the racial disparity in the Cumberland County Jail. A report by the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service found that 18 percent of the jail population in 2016 were people of color, compared to 9 percent of the overall county.

Gale said that disparity is concerning, and he promised to track and publish data on race in charging decisions, bail recommendations, plea bargains and other work by the district attorney’s office.

“Let’s take a case-by-case look at what differentiates the cases involving African Americans and non-African Americans,” he said.

Sahrbeck said he did not see the need to track the data.

“There are numerous people being held at the Cumberland County Jail that are not from Cumberland County, that are either from different counties in Maine or from out of state,” he said. “What I can tell you is that from my experience working with the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, we don’t make decisions based upon race, and from my experience working with law enforcement in Cumberland County, they don’t, either.”

In the juvenile justice system, calls to close Long Creek Youth Development Center have gotten louder in recent years. Some groups favor a community-based model with group homes. Both candidates said they support alternative sentences for young offenders, but they agreed that the state’s last juvenile detention center is still important for cases that involve violent crimes.

The candidates also have similar positions on recreational marijuana, saying they would not prioritize pot-related offenses.

And they both emphasized the need for the district attorney to be more visible in the community.

ANDERSON ENDORSEMENT

Gale and Sahrbeck have both worked as prosecutors and in civil litigation.

Sahrbeck worked as a prosecutor in Massachusetts before he returned to Maine. He worked on the Maine attorney general’s drug task force in York County and then spent two years at a Portland firm specializing in business litigation and personal injury. He has been a prosecutor in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office since 2016. Anderson has endorsed him as her replacement.

“I truly feel that we need a prosecutor to be the next district attorney,” Sahrbeck said. “For a lot of us who have worked as assistant DAs, you sort of develop this love for the job and standing up for victims and working with law enforcement and working for public safety. It really does become a part of you.”

Gale interned in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office when he was a law student and worked as an assistant district attorney in Aroostook and York counties from 1995 to 1999. He spent five years working in civil litigation at Unum and then left to work as a defense attorney. He worked at firms in Portland and Saco, and he has had his own practice since 2013.

“Something that we learn as a defense attorney more accurately, because we are dealing one on one with defendants, is what would best lead them away from the behavior that got them involved in the criminal justice system in the first place,” Gale said.

Neither attorney has been disciplined for ethics violations, according to a search through the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar.

Gale does not have a criminal record. In 2002, when Sahrbeck was 23 years old, he was charged with operating under the influence of alcohol. He eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of operating to endanger and paid a $750 fine.

“That taught me the value of taking responsibility for your actions, and I hope people who get charged with crimes are ready to do that,” Sahrbeck said. “It was a mistake, and I wish I had not made the decisions I did that night, but at the same time, it’s something that has shaped me as a prosecutor.”

A Justice Action Network poll conducted earlier this year showed that only 21 percent of people believe the criminal justice system works well as it is now. Seventy-three percent of people in the survey said the United States spends too much money on prisons that could be used for treatment, rehabilitation, law enforcement and victim services. The responses in the sample group of 800 people were relatively consistent across party and gender.

An American Civil Liberties Union poll had similar results last year in a telephone survey of roughly 1,000 people, including that two out of three would vote for an elected official if the candidate supported reducing the prison population and using the savings to reinvest in drug treatment and mental health programs.

The two candidates will participate in a forum on WGAN News Radio on Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.