Two elected positions — one rarely contested, the other rarely competitive — drew an audience of more than 100 people to the small theater at the Crosby Center Oct. 24 to hear from candidates for district attorney and Waldo County sheriff.

Current Midcoast District Attorney Jon Liberman, R-West Bath, appeared alongside his challenger, Natasha Irving, D-Waldoboro, a criminal defense attorney; and Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton, R-Thorndike, appeared with challenger John Gibbs, unenrolled-Belfast, a Belfast Police sergeant.

The event was hosted by Community Addiction & Mental Health Solutions, a citizen group founded on helping people with addiction and mental illness. Janine Gates, a member, said CAMS chose the law and order races because most criminal sentences are decided before going to trial. The result for people with addiction and mental illness, she said, is often jail instead of needed treatment.

"We believe the winners will have a lot of power over what happens in our community," she said.

Order

The role of rehabilitation has been key in both races, though to a greater extent the district attorney's, where Irving is campaigning on wider use of specialized courts and programs like restorative justice as alternatives to incarceration.

On Wednesday night, with sounds from a rehearsal of "The Crucible" coming from the theater next door, Irving painted a picture of a legal system obsessed with punishment.

She accused Liberman of giving light sentences for violent crimes and sex offenses, while throwing the book at nonviolent re-offenders, a category that often includes the mentally ill and addicted. She gave several examples of clients who got jail time when they should have received treatment for underlying problems, including a mentally ill man who served an extended jail sentence for shoplifting.

"In Saudi Arabia, you get your hand cut off," she said. "In Maine, you get a 2 ½-year sentence, for shoplifting. That was a tragic case."

Irving said using restorative justice would have been more successful and cheaper. The district attorney's office should have a grant writer, she said, to take advantage of federal grant money that could be used to establish a veterans' court in the Midcoast, a mental health court, community policing and other programs that are better suited to cases involving addiction and mental illness.

Though she advocated strongly for alternative approaches, she drew the line at violent crimes and sex offenses, which she said should be "vigorously prosecuted."

Liberman, the top prosecutor of District 6 since 2016, has publicly endorsed rehabilitation programs, recently partnering with local police, doctors and community groups, including Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, to fight the opioid epidemic under the banner of Waldo County Recovery Committee.

On Wednesday, he acknowledged that mental health and substance abuse can contribute to a counterproductive revolving door in courts and jails, but said prosecutors and defenders have a good history of working together to avoid that.

"If public safety is not jeopardized by someone being out in the community, it's not our goal to put someone in jail," he said.

Liberman said taking the right approach is easier said than done, and the needs of victims need to be considered alongside those of the accused.

In the shoplifting case described by Irving, he said, the couple who owned the store wouldn't have agreed to go through restorative justice because the shoplifter had a long list of prior offenses.

"This is someone who has been given second, third, fourth and fifth chances and has continued to commit crime and victimize others in the community," he said. "So, to just characterize it as a shoplifting case and nothing more than a third offense within 10 years, I don't think that's the whole story."

Irving reiterated that the shoplifter had severe mental illness and severe addiction. While behind bars, she said, the man was put in solitary confinement, which she classified as torture. "It is deplorable what is happening to people in our state because they have mental illness. It is a shame on this district attorney's office. It is a shame on our justice system."

Law

A different, and no less specific, case animated the debate in the sheriff's race when challenger John Gibbs suggested that lax screening was to blame in the death of a Reentry Center resident, who overdosed on heroin in July.

Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast accepts men at the end of jail or prison sentences for non-violent crimes and offers them counseling, mentoring, work experience and other programs intended to ease their transition back into society.

Trafton said the man, who was working at a restaurant in Belfast when he overdosed, was a recovering user whose tolerance had dropped, making him more vulnerable when he ultimately relapsed.

Gibbs claimed other knowledge of the case, and said the man hadn't been clean before he overdosed. Corrections officials should have known, he said. Trafton said he had no such knowledge.

Later, when asked how he measures success in his job, Trafton said, "The way I measure success? Nobody in Waldo County dies. That's a good day."

Gibbs has been a critic of the Reentry Center. In past interviews with The Republican Journal, he shared his observation as a police officer that the multi-county program has funneled criminals with a high risk of recidivism to the city, where many put down roots after their release, and some re-offend. On Wednesday, he said the community "only hears the good things" about the program.

Trafton called the overdose a "failure," but said the center has produced "hundreds of successes." An independent study in 2015 found a recidivism rate of 30 percent among Reentry Center graduates, he said, as compared with a national average of 70 percent. Gibbs questioned the value of that "apples to oranges" comparison, but Trafton said the bottom line is seven out of 10 graduates aren't re-offending.

Trafton accused Gibbs of saying, in past conversations, that he would close the Reentry Center, if elected, and asked Gibbs what had changed his mind.

Gibbs didn't deny that he has wanted to close the center, but said his comments were made in frustration. He hadn't changed his mind, he said, but he wouldn't close it either.

"We're too invested to do anything but make it better," he said.

Toward the end of the forum, moderator Jay Davis of Restorative Justice of the Midcoast asked how many in the audience had chosen a candidate. Hands shot up around the room. Over the swell of conversation that followed, Davis continued, "at least partly as a result of this forum?"

The hands fell away quickly, and several new ones went up.

"OK, there's still some undecideds out there!" he said.

The candidates' forum was co-sponsored by Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, Seaport Family Practice and the Greater Bay Area Ministerium.