Downtown Lewiston is pictured on August 30, 2016. Credit: Danielle McLean

LEWISTON, Maine — For years, the conversation around crime in Lewiston and much of Maine has had a central theme: Crime rates are going down in the state’s second-largest city, but people don’t seem to feel any safer.

The issue is a focal point for candidates in the city’s mayoral race, and two of the three candidates, Mark Cayer and Tim Lajoie, have used their experiences with the criminal justice system to shape their messaging.

Cayer is a former Rumford police sergeant and private investigator and Lajoie is a sergeant in the Androscoggin County sheriff’s office. They’re the front-running candidates in Tuesday’s race for the open mayoral seat alongside perennial hopeful Charles Soule.

Lajoie has characterized his policies as a blend of “justice and mercy.” His proposals have focused more on enforcement and punishment, while Cayer has advocated for meeting the city’s public safety challenges through education and addressing generational poverty.

The two agree that the criminal justice system serving the city is overtaxed. They both want to increase the size of the police force — something advocates say may not improve police relations with the city — and say the local district attorney’s office is overburdened by case loads.

Lewiston has had a regional reputation for being a high-crime city, but its crime rate in 2017 was roughly half of what it was in 2000, according to data from the Maine Department of Public Safety. Among Maine’s 10 largest cities and towns, only the more affluent Brunswick and Scarborough have lower rates.

Those numbers don’t fully reflect the city’s struggles with poverty and a low-income rental housing market that has nearly collapsed. It’s one of a handful of Maine cities that have sued drug companies over the opioid crisis. A police officer died of a fentanyl overdose this year.

The 2018 beating death of Donald Giusti — in a Kennedy Park brawl that police said was between white men and black teens — brought racial tension to the surface in a community where thousands of African immigrants have come since the turn of the century. Giusti’s uncle and members of the immigrant community joined to denounce violence afterward.

Lajoie and Cayer have agreed that police need to be better compensated and the department needs more officers. At a forum last week, Lajoie said if he got a $1 million grant to use however he wanted, he would create a selective team to target drug trafficking in the city.

He has called for the police’s staff numbers to be increased and to pay officers more competitively, and to staff officers at Kennedy Park during the summer months to encourage positive interactions with the community while creating an atmosphere of safety.

Cayer’s community safety plan calls for increased enforcement of certain violations, such as breaking curfew, public drinking and drug use, loitering and littering and trash violations.

Melissa Dunn, a community organizer in the city, said police’s enforcement strategy isn’t addressing the root causes of crime in the city, such as trauma, drug use and poverty, pointing to the city’s recent smoking ban in all of parks and recreational areas and a federally funded Operation Hot Spot program that Dunn believes targets the poorest neighborhoods.

Dunn said those policies can create more instances for police and residents to interact, which might not result in positive interactions. Lewiston police Chief Brian O’Malley and Lt. David St. Pierre declined comment for this story.

Joseph Jackson, a liaison at Maine Inside Out, a nonprofit that does community organizing and helps youths transition from incarceration through theater workshops, said Lewiston is a close community — and if one person has a bad interaction with police, others assume their own experiences with police will be similar.

Beyond policing, both candidates want to make changes to the county district attorney’s office, which they say is overburdened. Lajoie has been critical of Androscoggin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson, who he said needs to stop “making deals” with criminals.

He took his criticism further earlier this week when he called for an assistant state attorney general to be assigned to Lewiston, saying the measure is needed to combat “excessive plea bargains and the release of criminals back onto the streets.”

Robinson said his office of eight assistant district attorneys handled an average 564 cases each in the last fiscal year, a number he said was “overwhelming.” A national commission recommends an attorney take no more than 150 felony or 400 misdemeanor cases in a year.

The state doesn’t track the number of plea deals, but they are a national reality, with 97 percent of defendants in the federal justice system opting for plea bargains in 2017. Robinson, a Democrat, said the option can allow people to seek rehabilitation quicker and not languish in jail.

“That’s not justice,” he said. “That’s not how the system is supposed to work.”