DA Defends Record, Defines Challenges at County Budget Meeting

Washington and Hancock County District Attorney Matthew Foster, center, explained his 2019 budget request and answered questions from the county budget committee concerning the effectiveness of his office. (Photo by Sarah Craighead Dedmon)

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

District Attorney Matthew Foster attended the Oct. 17 meeting of the county budget committee meeting to answer questions about his office budget but ended up in a much weightier conversation about rising crime and his role in fighting it.

One week prior, Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis and Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree presented their case for three additional deputies to the budget committee, which led to a two-hour dialogue often touching on the perceived ineffectiveness of the district attorney’s office.

Committee chairman and Milbridge representative and Police Chief Lewis Pinkham said then that he believes the sheriff’s office does need more officers. “But I feel sometimes they’re wasting their time because the district attorney’s office isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”

Foster was elected DA for Washington and Hancock counties in 2014 and is up for reelection this year as a Republican candidate. Steven Juskewitch of Ellsworth is an Independent also running for the office. 

Jonesport Selectman and committee representative Harry Fish raised the issue directly with Foster at the most recent meeting.

“There’s got to be a reason that most of us are hearing and feel that there is a big issue about how well the district attorney’s office is accomplishing their job,” said Fish. “Is it lack of manpower?”

“I think it’s a combination of things,” said Foster. “Most of it is a misunderstanding or a lack of understanding of what we actually do.”

Foster said that staffing is an issue, but primarily in law enforcement where there are not enough officers in the field. He described extensive paperwork and long man-hours required by his office when responding to requests for discovery, which often require getting additional information from law enforcement officers already overloaded with work.

“For discovery, we have to send that out to that deputy who is onto bigger and better things,” said Foster. “If we don’t get one of those items and the court tells us we have to turn that over, if we can’t get it because that officer’s too busy to get it, dismissed. That’s your fault, Mr. District Attorney.”

Rep. Will Tuell (R.-E. Machias) said that one of his biggest frustrations in Augusta is that “people are pathetically soft on crime, to be blunt.” Tuell serves as the legislative representative on the budget committee.

“I just think there’s this attitude that we need to get lighter on crime and that has generated a lot of this mess,” said Tuell. “I hear every day, ‘There’s a drug dealer right around the corner, why isn’t anybody getting to it?”

Foster and county commissioner Chris Gardner both lamented the lack of superior court judges who live and serve in Washington County. Foster said there are only 2.6 days per month when judges are available to hold trials at the Washington County Courthouse in Machias.

“We have three courtrooms over there and most days they’re empty. But yet the legislature didn’t put any money behind it in the judiciary to start putting people there,” said Gardner. “There’s an increase in crime, increase in arrests, increase in incarcerations. It all goes together.”

“It’s a systemic problem, and we’re the face of the system that everybody sees,” said Foster.

The numbers

In 2017 there were 1,845 Washington County cases submitted to Foster’s office. Of those, 76 were declined for prosecution, meaning the DA’s office did not believe there was probable cause that a crime had been committed. That equates to 4 percent of the cases in 2017, a percentage mirrored in Foster’s Hancock County cases as well.

Foster’s office handled 109 Washington County drug cases in 2017, of which 104 were charged. Of those, 30 cases received a fine only, and 32 were incarcerated. All of Hancock County’s drug cases were prosecuted by the attorney general’s office, and their rates of prosecution nearly mirror Foster’s in Washington County.

“So when you say that we’re not prosecuting cases...we’re not doing anything different than the attorney general’s office is doing, or any other prosecutorial district for that matter,” said Foster.

Organized crime 

Foster said that dealing with organized crime in Washington County is particularly frustrating. 

“Guys come in from out of state, 18 or 19 years old, no prior criminal record,” he said. “They’re picked up with 10 grams of heroin or cocaine, cause they don’t bring a lot, just enough so they don’t really get slammed.”

“We make a pitch for a sentence, the Court says, ‘Well, they don’t have a real big history, they’re young. Ninety days probation.’”

Foster said that sending young drug dealers here is a deliberate strategy of organized crime coming in from out of state, and once one is arrested, a new youth is sent into the area.

“They do their 90 days, then they’re off and a new guy is here,” said Foster. “I think if we slammed them [with a stiff sentence] once in a while we might send a message.”

The proposed 2019 budget for the DA’s office is $297,197, up $16,560 over the previous year. Foster said the budget hike is primarily attributed to payroll increases.

 

The Washington County Commissioners have called for a public meeting to discuss the proposed addition of three deputies to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The meeting will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the Superior Court Room of the county courthouse in Machias.