Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris joined Matt Gagnon on Newsradio WGAN Monday morning to discuss Portland’s encampment crisis and the issues her office faces due to a backlog of cases and lack of staffing at the Cumberland County Jail.
Sartoris told Gagnon that the homeless encampments in Portland are “definitely getting worse.”
“The encampments issue for me has been rising in terms of my concerns for a while,” Sartoris said, describing a system of “lawless power structure within the encampments” that put the people that live there at risk.
The Cumberland County DA told Gagnon that she recently did an overnight shift with the Portland Police in which almost all of their contacts were “with people who were unhoused.”
Sartoris attributes the encampments to a number of factors, including housing in southern Maine hitting a “crisis point” in terms of affordability.
“I think folks are being burdened in the encampment with a lack of ability to get out on their own terms,” she told Gagnon. “Where people are dealing with substance use disorder, it’s really hard to find a place right now where you can say, ‘okay, right now I’m using drugs, eventually I want to be off drugs — where can I go in the interim?'”
“We need to get in there, and we need to do a lot more enforcement,” she said.
Sartoris explained that there has been “relatively lower enforcement” of crimes for several reasons, including not being able to keep people at the Cumberland County Jail because of COVID outbreaks.
“We were not able to keep people in jail for even a short stint,” Sartoris said. “It used to be that for a lot of the crimes that the community finds distasteful, but not necessarily high risk — drinking in public, maybe urinating in public — a lot of these sort of quality of life crimes, typically we’d have a quick in — arrest, in, out — very quickly from the jail.”
“The jail has really not been able to accommodate that sort of thing for quite some time,” she said. “The jail is low, in terms of the number of corrections officers, COVID has been an issue on and off — we again have an outbreak at the Cumberland County Jail.”
The DA explained that summons do not have the same effect as arrests and jail time.
“I need the resource of the Cumberland County Jail,” Sartoris said. “And I really need it to be up and running in a way it really hasn’t been in quite some time.”
“I need jail to mean something — you know, I’m not a big jail person, in a lot of ways, I’m not big on saying ‘okay, you go to jail and the problem’s solved’ — I know better, the problem is not solved,” she said.
“But when I can’t even send people to jail and get an evaluation for mental health, to get people to apply for whatever it is that’s gonna help them address the issues that they’re dealing with on the street, the jail is no longer a tool for me in a way that I need it to be,” she explained.
Sartoris said Monday that she is meeting with Deputy Sheriff of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and the Portland Police Chief to brainstorm solutions to the encampment issue.
Although saying that the City of Portland and local nonprofits have done a lot of work on the crisis, Sartoris said that the city has over 100 unoccupied beds available.
“Folks either don’t want to go into those beds for whatever reason, or maybe they feel their substance use disorder, mental health, is so out of control that giving up that little control they have of where they sleep may feel like a bridge too far,” she said.
The Cumberland DA told Gagnon that the “best tool” she has as a prosecutor is to “use charging as leverage to move people from their current situation into something better.”
“If people are dangerous, sometimes the best I can offer the public is, we’re actually going to take somebody away for a while,” she said. “That is the best I can do in those situations.”
“Where people’s infractions of the law are informed by substance use disorder, mental health, and even poverty, I would say that the best we can do with our tools is to leverage people into help,” she said.
The reason the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office had not been charging some of the lower level crimes, Sartoris explained, was because of a pandemic-era backlog of cases that still persists.
Sartoris also said that a change to Maine law regarding bail conditions have presented a challenge to her office.
Two years ago Maine stopped the practice of random search and tests included as a part of bail conditions — a step Sartoris said has made it difficult to get a subset of people out on bail the help they need to address substance use or mental health issues.
Listen to the full Newsradio WGAN interview with Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris below: