Next week, midcoast voters will choose between the recently appointed district attorney for Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties and the defense attorney with passion but little prosecutorial experience who is challenging him.
The incumbent is Jonathan Liberman, 33, of West Bath, who was appointed to the job last year after longtime District 6 District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau became a district court judge. Liberman started working in the Knox County district attorney’s office in 2011 but first started prosecuting as a student attorney in Cumberland County in 2009. He said that he brings almost 10 years worth of on-the-job know how to the position.
“What sets me apart from my opponent is experience,” the Republican candidate said this week. “It’s a job that’s extremely challenging and also extremely rewarding. And it’s something that, when all is said and done, when the signs come down and the election is done, it’s a very non-political job. It’s a job that, 99 percent of the time, you’ll be enforcing laws that aren’t very controversial or politically charged.”
Natasha Irving, though, spoke of the position she wants with a reformer’s zeal. The 35-year-old Democratic candidate from Waldoboro was admitted to the bar in 2014. She said she believes there are many gains to be made.
“I want to be district attorney because right now there’s a lot of squandering of taxpayer dollars and putting people in jail and prison for nonviolent offenses,” she said. “You’re not going to make a community stronger by putting those people in jail. I’d like to see community-based restorative justice for non-violent offenses across the board.”
Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior, and one of its foundational principles is that the people affected by the crime should be able to participate in its resolution. Currently, restorative justice is incorporated into the criminal justice system in the four midcoast counties, primarily via programs operated by the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, a Belfast-based nonprofit organization.
“Restorative justice is an excellent program,” Liberman said, adding that in District 6, it is used heavily with juveniles and occasionally with young adults. “One of the reasons I love RJP is that you put the offender in a room with the person he victimized, and the person has a chance to explain in their own words how the crime impacted them. That’s a thing that’s missing from the regular criminal-justice system — there’s not a lot of face-to-face accountability.”
However, right now the prosecutors and victim witness advocates who work in the four counties of the district give the victims of crimes a lot of say in whether they will go through the restorative justice process. Sometimes they don’t want to, he said.
“I think it’s important that a victim has the say,” Liberman said.
Irving said that if elected, she would significantly expand the use of restorative justice, making it the de facto protocol for adults accused of non-violent offenses, too. If victims of crime do not wish to participate, she said, a surrogate could be used instead, giving the example of a store owner standing in for someone else who has had an experience with a shoplifter.
“Using a shoplifting restorative justice program is the way forward,” she said. “It ends the recidivism.”
When asked how she would work to fund the major expansion of restorative justice programming, she said that her first piece of business as district attorney would be to hire a grant writer.
“There’s money to be had, if we fight for it,” she said.
Irving said that although she has not worked as a prosecutor, she is a good fighter, which she says is borne out by her success at getting campaign donations. According to campaign finance reports from the Maine Ethics Commission, Irving has received just shy of $50,000 in campaign contributions. Liberman, in contrast, has raised roughly $7,600.
“The reason we have so much money is I made that happen,” she said. “And as it moved along, people really did get excited. The principle of getting restorative justice in all four counties has really fired up [people].”
Liberman, who said he is running a grassroots campaign, hopes that his track record will get voters to support him. One of the things he is proudest of as district attorney is that he helped to develop a child advocacy center in the midcoast, the first in the area. The center is a safe, child-focused environment where children who have disclosed abuse will tell their stories just one time, not over and over again to all of the different medical, law enforcement and other agencies involved with the investigation.
“The child, who certainly has been through enough trauma, only has to do this once,” he said.
He also has worked to enact policies and measures to protect the privacy of victims of child sexual abuse and other victims and witnesses.
“I think it’s commonplace that victims of crime feel that they are on trial,” Liberman said, adding that he wants to minimize that feeling. “We just want to make sure that confidentiality isn’t breached for arbitrary reasons.”
Both Liberman and Irving said they are interested in bringing alternative, specialized courts to the district, such as drug court and others. Liberman said he’s been working with the judiciary to establish a drug court in midcoast Maine, and is optimistic that will happen in Lincoln County or Knox County within one to two years. Irving said she would like to bring a veterans’ court to the district, too, adding that there are federal grants available for this.
“We need a prosecutor who is going to get us a grant,” she said. “I think that Mr. Liberman thinks of the position as the head trial attorney, but it’s so much more than that.”