Democratic primary sets up contest for Cumberland County DA

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PORTLAND — Five candidates hope to replace Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who is retiring after 27 years.

The three Democrats –Jon Gale, Seth Levy and Frayla Tarpinian – will compete in their party’s June 12 primary. The winner will face Republican Randall Bates and possibly independent Jonathan Sahrbeck in the Nov. 6 general election.

Bates, of 30 Tannery Lane in Yarmouth, is an attorney who has also served on the Yarmouth Town Council.

Sahrbeck, of 60 Longfellow Drive, Cape Elizabeth, is a Cumberland County assistant district attorney. He has filed to raise funds with the Maine Ethics Commission and has until June 1 to submit nominating papers to the Maine Secretary of State’s office.

Jon Gale

In a primary election where the candidates share similar views about the needed direction of criminal justice, Gale said his experience counts.

“I have practiced far longer, and my practice has been primarily in the county where our race is,” Gale said. “I have far greater experience on both sides as a prosecutor and defense attorney.”

Gale, 50, lives in Portland. He has been a defense attorney since 2004, but was also an intern with the DA’s office and an assistant district attorney in Aroostook and York counties.

“This is an enormous opportunity to affect positive change. There is a movement nationally to change the way we prosecute and focus on root causes of criminal behavior,” he said.

Gale has worked with Restorative Justice to bring offenders and victims together to talk about actions and consequences.

Efforts to have a meeting between police and the 17 people arrested in Portland July 15, 2016, during a protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement did not come to fruition, but Gale said the principle remains intact.

“Giving a young person a theft conviction rather than an opportunity to avoid the conviction while making the victim whole and learning from his or her mistake is bad policy,” he said.

Assessing cases to determine whether diversion or prosecution is the proper course can be challenging, Gale said.

“There are nuanced and challenging questions that have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “What I am suggesting is a lot harder work.”

Yet Gale said is it necessary because of the costs of incarceration when measured against the costs or deterrence and treatments.

“The way I talk about being a DA is what is most effective,” he said. “It happens that what is most effective is also the most humane.”

He promised a pragmatic approach to reducing crime that would not lose focus on prosecuting violent crimes.

“We have to balance our approach between desire to address root causes, and at times the need for immediate police intervention,” Gale said. “In domestic violence and sex cases, the first question that must be answered is, how do we best maximize the safety of the victim going forward?”

Gale said he has heard the same concerns in Harpswell as in Bayside, and knows there are limitations in what can be done to help people get services instead of sentences.

“There are inadequate resources for everybody. With that said, those resources can be used to a greater degree than they are now by folks in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Seth Levy

“If the constituency wants more of the same, I don’t want that job,” Levy said. “If they want fundamental change, then I am that person.”

Levy, 54, of Portland, has a private practice with offices in Portland and Brunswick and has served as a defense counsel on the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court in Augusta.

“I was very moved by what these veterans have experienced,” he said. “The program has been so effective, we need it down here.”

In his practice as a defense attorney, Levy has worked with “people struggling with substance abuse disorders, mental illness, and poverty,” said Levy, who sees more value in getting needed services for clients than continued incarceration for smaller crimes.

He has represented children as a guardian ad litem, appointed by courts to determine what is in the best interest of a child in cases that include divorce.

Levy said there won’t be much he doesn’t change in the DA’s office.

“I want to reform the cash bail system so people who are sitting in jail are not sitting in jail just because they are poor,” he said.

Levy plans to have better assessments of cases when people are arrested to determine if diversion or prosecution is needed. The assessments would also direct those arrested to needed services. A diversionary approach, bringing the accused and victims together to discuss low-level crimes, can foster a better understanding on both sides, he said.

Levy said a youth court should also be considered for people from 18-24 years old who commit nonviolent offenses, because jail sentences will not rehabilitate them.

“The sea change goes from the straight and narrow of prosecute, punish and incarcerate,” Levy said.

Diversion will not occur with violent crimes, especially those involving domestic and sexual abuse, Levy said.

On his website, Levy describes sexual abuse he suffered as a child. The experience directed him to a career in law because the perpetrator was convicted and received a long sentence.

It happened because investigators and prosecutors believed in Levy and wanted justice, he said.

“Crimes are unreported and the sentences are not long enough. Victims need to know they will be safe,” Levy said. “If we have the evidence someone has convicted a crime in a sex offense case, we will not negotiate it down.”

Levy promised to diversify the office staff, based on race, gender and socioeconomics, and to have services at all three county courts in Portland, Bridgton and West Bath.

“Even if it means I have to recruit,” he said.

Frayla Tarpinian

“I decided to run because I felt like everything I had done up to this moment had given me the skills,” Tarpinian said.

Tarpinian, 37, is resident of Windham. She leads the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse Unit Office. Before joining that office in 2013, she was a defense attorney in private practices.

“I have been able to move up in the office and look at the system,” she said. “I know how to make and implement policy.”

Tarpinian also wants a DA’s office that considers the benefits of harm reduction and diversionary programs for the nonviolent offenders.

“I believe harm reduction is the only path forward,” she said. “It addresses the rates of incarceration and the issues pushed on to the criminal justice system that are really public health issues.”

Like Levy, she has also served as a defense counsel for the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court in Augusta.

The lack of services, including “housing-first” approaches to stabilize lives and needed expansion of MaineCare, are beyond what a district attorney can do, but Tarpinian said the DA’s office can do more.

“They can push policies to move it forward,” she said. “The key is reaching team leaders so they understand there are new policies in place, and enforcing the policies.”

Harm reduction and diversion strategies will become part of the process in courts in Bridgton and West Bath, Tarpinian said, even though providing services and treatment in rural areas can be more difficult than in Portland.

“I am very interested in progressive reform. It is important to understand the kind of discretion a DA has,” she said.

Harm reduction and diversion policies to reduce jail sentences for lesser crimes will be coupled with a more aggressive prosecution of sexual assault crimes, Tarpinian said.

“If we have the basis to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that person was sexually assaulted, we need to prosecute it. I want to take those cases forward,” she said.

But Tarpinian said sentencing can be more nuanced.

“I don’t believe in sentences for the purposes of sentences,” she said. “That is ego … but I also need to ensure as a prosecutor people are safe.”

The DA’s office also needs a more diverse staff, Tarpinian said.

“It is important to have representation. A difference of ideas is important for two reasons,” she said. “It is important to understand people’s perspectives, and important for people on the outside looking in to feel there is equal representation.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Gale, Tarpinian, Levy

3 Dems in running for probate judge

PORTLAND — The June 12 Democratic primary may determine Cumberland County’s next judge of probate.

Paul Aranson, Charles Kahill and Ruben Segal are running on the Democratic ticket. No Republican candidates have filed, and the Maine Ethics Commission does not list any unenrolled candidates who registered to raise money for a candidacy.

Unenrolled candidates have until June 1 to file nomination papers with the Maine Secretary of State’s office.

Incumbent Judge Joseph Mazziotti is not seeking a third term in the office that oversees the county Probate Court.

According to the county website, the court handles 25 percent of all probate filings in the state. Filings include last wills and testaments, estate distributions, name changes and adoptions, and guardianships and conservatorships.

Aranson, of Scarborough, is a former Cumberland County district attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the Maine House of Representatives in 2012 and 2014.

Kahill, of South Portland, has been in private legal practice for more than 40 years.

Segal, of Portland, is also in private practice. He works with bankruptcy cases, wills and estates, and criminal defense, according to the announcement of his candidacy. 

— David Harry

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.