The two candidates to be the region's top prosecutor took aim at each other during a forum held Friday night, Oct. 12, at Rockland City Hall.

Incumbent District Attorney Jonathan Liberman, a Republican, stressed his experience as a prosecutor, pointing out that he tried his first case before graduating from law school in 2009.

Challenger Natasha Irving, a Democrat, argued, however, that Liberman has been more concerned about his conviction rate than the need for justice.

Liberman started by pointing out how his office obtained a conviction against a truck driver who was drunk, on drugs and speeding when he crashed his vehicle into cars, killing two people and injuring and traumatizing others.

He said the sentence that the prosecution got was the longest ever in Maine for vehicular manslaughter — 25 years in prison. "I believe if this case had not been handled by experienced prosecutors, the outcome could have ended up differently," Liberman said.

The veteran prosecutor asked the people at the forum whether they wanted a district attorney who has only participated in two criminal trials. He likened what he said was Irving's lack of experience to a sheriff candidate who had only made two minor arrests or a probate judge candidate who had only handled two wills.

Irving said she has represented clients in 10 trials, but has also handled numerous court hearings on a variety of matters.

"I'm not a career prosecutor. The district attorney should be more than a head prosecutor. The district attorney should set policies, set the culture and determine how justice will be served," Irving said.

The Democratic challenger was sharply critical of the performance of the current District Attorney's Office.

"I have witnessed the failed policies of the District Attorney's Office that have placed conviction rates above the need for justice. I have witnessed the squandering of taxpayers' dollars to fill jails with nonviolent misdemeanor offenders. I have witnessed a dangerous and violent offender get off with a $300 fine and a confessed rapist getting two weeks in jail because the district attorney was afraid of having his conviction rate lowered," Irving said.

The Waldoboro woman said she has seen a hungry, homeless teen get seven days in jail for stealing $6 worth of food and a man taken out of a rehab center to serve 60 days in jail for a nonviolent offense.

Liberman said Irving was not painting an accurate portrait of the District Attorney's Office, asserting that she was cherry-picking a few cases out of 1,000 cases that are handled in each county each year. He cited examples of three people in the Midcoast who have received 10-year prison terms for sexual assaults, including a former Topsham postmaster and a man involved in a youth theater who assaulted a child.

He acknowledged that there are times when difficult decisions must be made in reaching plea agreements when there are problems with cases.

Liberman said he has prosecuted 40 to 50 trials. He said trial experience is important, adding that one of the most important jobs he has is to advise assistant district attorneys on trial strategies. "You cannot properly lead and advise prosecutors if you have less trial experience than even your newest prosecutors," Liberman said.

Irving said her background is important to the position she seeks.

"I have fought against a broken criminal justice system. The district attorney practices an obsolete 'do the crime, do the time' system," Irving said.

She also said Liberman's experience has been working within that broken system.

Liberman, who grew up in Bath, said the system is not broken, but is doing the best it can with the resources it has.

He said he supports creating a drug court in the Midcoast and that he would also support other specialty courts, including ones to serve veterans and those with mental illnesses. He said his office has referred cases involving veterans in the Midcoast to the Augusta veterans' court. "They have put their lives on the line for our country. They're entitled to a second chance," Liberman said.

Irving countered that local legislators sponsored a bill during the past session of the Legislature to create a drug court in the Midcoast, but that no one from the District Attorney's Office attended an April public hearing. She said days after Liberman was quoted in the media calling for a Midcoast drug court, the bill died.

Irving said she would lobby for funds and would get the money for a drug court come "hell or high water."

The two candidates differed on the issue of cash bail. Irving said her sole determining factor in what to request for bail before a judge would be community safety. She said cash bail is ineffective and punishes low-income people. She said she has had clients who have gone against her advice and pleaded guilty to offenses because they did not want to stay in jail any longer, since they were unable to make the cash bail.

Liberman said he supports cash bail in some instances, including felony cases.

Irving said a person can be charged with a felony theft if they have two prior shoplifting convictions in the past 10 years. The Democratic candidate said she had a client with mental health problems who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for a felony theft that amounted to stealing $300 in goods and having two prior theft convictions.

She said she would establish a community restorative justice focus for all nonviolent offenses.

Liberman said he uses restorative justice for juveniles and young adults, but would not use it for adults if the case involves a felony.