A new district attorney is changing the way crimes are prosecuted in the Midcoast. First term District Attorney Natasha Irving campaigned on a restorative justice platform in 2018. This month, she began implementing that progressive form of justice. The concept dates as far back as Native Americans, but is relatively new in criminal prosecution. In her campaign, Irving promised to seek restorative justice in all but the most violent crimes.
Restorative justice applies law through repairing harm the criminal behavior caused; and victims participate in cases’ resolution. In bringing the restorative justice philosophy to Maine Prosecutorial District No. 6 (Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo counties), Irving’s goal was to spend less time on non-violent offenders and more on violent offenses such as domestic and sexual abuse.
Shoplifting is an example of how Irving’s application of restorative justice works. A defendant charged with shoplifting may have to pay restitution, perform community service and possibly complete high school or receive a GED (general education diploma). In restorative justice, the victim may be the community or a person. The defendant is held accountable in a way that makes the victim whole, and will likely prevent recidivism, according to Irving and restorativejustice.org
“The restorative justice model has a more satisfying result for everyone,” Irving said. “In the shoplifting resolution, 100% restitution is paid which is not always the case in the traditional system which involves a jail time, fine or restitution. In many cases, 10 years later, restitution hasn’t been paid. What we want is more power in the victims’ hands.”
Irving also believes jail time isn’t a good resolution for the defendant or community. As a lawyer in Waldoboro, she defended clients throughout the Midcoast. Often times, her clients would become repeat offenders or enter into a new class of crimes. “I’d watch it happen over and over. A client would go to jail and come out a better criminal. All jail time did was make them a better forger, make contact with a new drug dealer or learn how to hide urine tests,” Irving said.
As DA, she points out there is another benefit restorative justice provides the public. It allows her office and law enforcement more time to investigate domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Irving said statistics show nearly two out of three domestic violent or sexual abuse cases fail because the victim decides against cooperating. Irving wants law enforcement to spend more time investigating violent crimes to build more solid cases if a victim ultimately decides not to cooperate.
Irving believes these crimes need more attention because they often result in more violent crimes. She described a generation of kids growing up in toxic households with sexual abuse, having a detrimental impact on their present and future lives. “Domestic violence is the No. 1 evil in our community today. Children live through these problems and commit crimes as adults from growing up in this hell. My belief is looking at community treatment for drug cases and building stronger cases for domestic violence and doing more to hold people accountable for domestic and sexual assault.”
Irving was also drawn to restorative justice by witnessing a community-based program in Waldo County. Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast was formed in 2005. It provides restorative conferences for adults and juveniles offenders. The project’s focus is on offender accountability coupled with how an offense affects the lives of victims and the community. The project has a firm base in Waldo County and an emerging one in Lincoln, Knox and Sagadahoc. Her first year as DA has been about implementing restorative justice in the four county offices and throughout the Midcoast law enforcement agencies. In year two, Irving is looking toward expanding her programs.
“There has been a lot of reform and updating policies. We’ve made tremendous strides in putting fewer people in jail for drug offenses. This year will be more of a transitional year,” she said. “The focus is reallocating time focusing on prosecuting criminal violence. All I can say is there is still more to do.”
As DA, Irving wants to put less emphasis on prosecuting underage smoking and drinking. Her policy is only to prosecute cases which endanger public health. As a teenager, she remembered law enforcement showing up and breaking up teen drinking parties and informing parents. She sees this as better than arresting youths for poor judgement.
“Only in the most exceptional cases where a teen gets behind the wheel impaired will a prosecution takes place. Charging a large group of teens doesn’t make sense especially if a problem occurs. We want them to call for help without fearing being arrested,” she said.
In November 2018, Irving’s victory was a bit of an upset. District Attorney Jonathan Liberman was appointed by Gov. LePage in 2016 to fill an unexpired term. Republican Geoffrey Rushlau had served almost six terms before becoming a district court judge. Irving became the first woman Midcoast DA and the fourth statewide. As a Democrat, she also broke the GOP’s hold on the position. Despite being a progressive Democrat, Irving has received criticism on a recent arrest of an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainee. A news report of the arrest of Adekunle O. Adeyanju was placed on Irving’s DA Facebook page. The post received criticism based on the defendant’s race, and Irving’s former campaign manager removed it, according to Irving. But Irving ignored the criticism and requested to re-post it.
“This guy is a person of color and I’m a supporter of equal rights and understand our state’s and nation’s history,” she said. “But I wanted to re-post it because since its been up there more women have come forward. The defendant just happens to be a person of color and this is a very serious crime.”
Earlier in her term, her position on drunk driving brought criticism from the Mothers Against Drunk Driving president. Irving proposed a policy change for deferred dispositions for first-time operating under the influence. Part of Irving’s proposal was requiring an intoxilock device. “I think it was more of a misunderstanding what I was trying for was more public safety not less,” she said. “Only the Secretary of State can require use of an intoxilock. So it’s really out of the hands of a DA. I was just hoping for some common sense legislation.”
As her term approaches its midpoint this year, Irving is trying convince all four county commissioner boards to fund a grant writer. She said the U.S. Department of Justice has numerous grant opportunities which could expand public safety programs and expand growing restorative justice resources in the district.