In a Wednesday op-ed in the Portland Press Herald, Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris expressed her concern over rampant drug use, sexual assault, violence and theft in Portland’s large homeless encampments.
The city’s Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT), formed in late May of this year and tasked with addressing Portland’s homelessness crisis, has followed a procedure of doing outreach for housing and services at one designated large encampment at a time before a set resolution — or “sweep” — deadline.
The city’s policy of clearing out encampments has attracted criticism from the Maine American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as from the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (Maine DSA) and the Communist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL).
Last week the ECRT began their efforts to move individuals from the city’s current largest encampment at Harbor View Park into the Homeless Services Center (HSC), which recently received an increase in bed-availability following the opening of a new $4.6 million emergency shelter for asylum seekers and a 50-bed expansion.
“As encampments have grown, so has debate over whether the community should embrace an extreme – maximizing unsheltered people’s choice of where and how to live – or whether Portland should continue to maintain a social contract that holds that every person belongs indoors,” Sartoris wrote in her Wednesday op-ed.
Sartoris goes on to reference Portland voters electing Mark Dion — who was the mayoral candidate who took the most hardline stance against the encampments — and the recent decision by the City Council to reject a proposal to legalize the encampments through April 2024.
These elected officials and voters Sartoris puts in opposition to “those pushing a hard swing toward individual liberty over community concern.”
Sartoris, who ran on a platform of “prosecutorial reform” and won the 2022 Democratic Party primary with the help of more than $300,000 from far-left megadonor George Soros, wrote that she has reviewed reports involving “domestic violence, other violent confrontations, rampant theft, sexual assault,” and other instances of “severe mental health challenges” endangering those in and around the encampments.
Additionally, the Cumberland DA wrote that she recently met with people living in encampments who detailed to her “routine coercion into demeaning sex acts in exchange for drugs, safety and basic needs.”
“We have reports of area young people dropping by encampments to buy drugs and allegations of predators using drugs to entice vulnerable people – usually women – into traumatic encounters elsewhere,” she wrote.
Sartoris argues that the encampments “reinforce an environment where even people longing to address their substance use disorder and mental health issues are enabled into delay, sinking them deeper into despair.”
Expansion of the encampments, in her view, “will overwhelm Portland’s capacity to keep people safe or provide needed support to the vast majority who are capable of lives of connection and recovery.”
The prosecutor also seemed to attack libertarians — while making no mention of the Maine ACLU, Maine DSA, or the Communist PSL — writing, “notwithstanding the idealism of libertarians, encampments are inconsistent with the broader community’s safety and use of shared spaces.”
“Should we give people who are demonstrably unable to make healthy choices greater freedom to make dangerous ones?” she wrote. “Or should we instead hold firm to a compassionate social contract, in the certainty that everyone deserves and is almost certainly capable of a life of greater connection and community?”
Sartoris concludes by stating “the full humanity and capacity of each person to be safe, warm and supported…begins by bringing people indoors.”
In an October interview on Newsradio WGAN, Sartoris explained that there has been “relatively lower enforcement” of crimes in Cumberland County due to a backlog of cases at her office and staffing issues at the Cumberland County Jail.
“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 WGAN host Matt Gagnon in October.
“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 said.
The Cumberland DA went on tell 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.”