Natasha Irving’s campaign to be the District 6 district attorney rested firmly on a platform of progressive reform.
That platform — and the 35-year old Democratic candidate who espoused it — resonated with voters at the polls in Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. About 55 percent of them chose her earlier this month over Jon Liberman, the incumbent district attorney and a Republican who had been appointed to his post last year when longtime District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau was named to be a district court judge.
In some ways, Irving’s election reflects a new national wave of district attorneys who may come from unlikely backgrounds and who are pushing a boldly liberal agenda, according to a recent article in the Washington Post.
Irving, who was admitted to the bar four years ago, seems to be part of the trend. She is the first woman and the first Democrat to be elected midcoast district attorney, and some of her desired reforms include greatly expanding the use of restorative justice and stopping the practice of putting people in jail for nonviolent offenses. And although change can be hard, she said she thinks that her goals will make sense to her constituents.
“We’re going to scrap what’s not working and make sure that we’re building up what is working,” she said. “In the end, the justice system is still who you charge and how you charge them. It may seem like a huge, end-of-days change. But if you look at the whole system, it’s just a tweak that’s necessary.”
Among Irving’s first actions after election was to initiate conversations with the prosecutors and other staff members who work throughout the district. The assistant district attorneys she has spoken with thus far are willing to give her ideas a try, she said.
“They’re not philosophically opposed to what I want to do. We’ll try it out. People who want to stay on are going to be given the opportunity to dig in and try this approach,” she said. “We’ll have a six-month trial period. I don’t expect to fire everybody after six months. I’d much rather have people who are willing to stay on.”
When she takes office at the beginning of January, she also will take another look at the controversial resignation of a Rockland police officer. Christopher Spear had been the Waldoboro Police Department school resource officer in 2016, when a substitute teacher was accused of exchanging sexual photos with a student. Spear’s testimony at a motion-to-suppress hearing connected to the case triggered concerns about the officer’s credibility.
In August, Liberman wrote a letter to the Rockland Police Department saying that his office wouldn’t be able to prosecute cases involving Spear because of the perceived credibility concerns. A letter written about the credibility concerns of a law enforcement officer is known as Giglio material, and Irving sharply criticized the decision to send the letter during her campaign. She said last week she will review Spear’s case “very, very early on” and decide whether to rescind the letter.
“Giglio is pretty darn rare, and I am establishing a process to be able to make sure we’re going to make this designation,” the incoming district attorney said. “To make sure that when there’s reason to believe somebody has been dishonest, that we have a process in place that at least involves a hearing.”
Funding and expanding restorative justice
Another early step for Irving will be to hire a grant writer, which is critical because she wants to apply for some of the more than $5.5 million in federal grant funding. She already started going to county budget meetings and will be asking each of the four counties to chip in $10,000 for the grant-writing position. The funds will help agencies within the district do community policing.
“I think one of our biggest keys to success will be having partnerships with law enforcement,” she said. “That can be make or break for any reform-minded DA.”
Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden said that Irving has visited his office since her election, asking him how the district attorney’s office can help his department meet its goals for community policing. This visit was unusual, in his experience, and he found it refreshing.
“I’ve got to be honest with you,” McFadden said. “I’ve been a police officer for 28 years, and I’ve never heard of the DA’s office reaching out for guidance. It never occurred to me that there could be some usefulness in sharing notes about what we want to accomplish here.”
He does not need to be convinced that expanding restorative justice will be a positive move for the district. 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. McFadden serves on the board of the Restorative Justice Project of Midcoast Maine and said he has witnessed first hand the effect it has had.
“My thought before was that this was an easy way out for people who commit crimes. I think that some of the offenders probably have that in their minds, too, but they couldn’t be more wrong,” he said. “It makes a huge impact.”
Irving said that one example of using restorative justice for a nonviolent offender would be for a person who was a first-time drunk driver.
“A drunk driving offense is a dangerous offense,” she said. “But what I think would make more sense is to put somebody on a deferred disposition [sentence] and put an Intoxalock on their car, so they can’t drive it. And then have them do a restorative justice component with a group like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where folks can really see there’s damage you can do. It’s a lot easier to go to jail for 48 hours than it is to do the hard work of facing addiction.”
Some crimes have mandatory minimum sentences set by the Maine Legislature, a practice she does not agree with.
“There’s prosecutorial discretion,” Irving said, adding that some driving offenses are tantamount to poverty offenses, when an offender is punished for being unable to pay fines. “You can put a person on a deferred disposition sentence. That’s used today in the DA’s office. I just want to use it more.”
Carrie Sullivan, the executive director of the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, said she is excited about the coming changes. The nonprofit agency she heads is already working with juveniles in every county in District 6 and has trained volunteers in the communities there.
“Our vision is to have the communities own this,” she said of the expansion of restorative justice practices. “We’re ready to help however we can.”
It will not be a quick transition, Sullivan said, which may reassure people who are feeling concerned about the changes.
“It’s not something that you switch and it starts to happen,” she said. “I see this as a learning curve for everyone.”
As for Irving, she believes that moving toward this new style of justice is what the community wants. She knows it won’t be easy to implement the changes, but she said it can be done.
“Is it a big responsibility? Of course,” she said. “I’m up for the challenge. It’s like being a mom. You cannot fail. Failure is not an option.”