In a push to accelerate the wheels of justice, a state representative from Machias has proposed a measure that could give Washington County its own district attorney. The move comes at a time when prosecutors’ offices across the country are overburdened and understaffed. Washington County struggles to attract assistant district attorneys for the positions it does have. Creating a new district under such conditions would likely be costly if not outright impractical.
Hancock and Washington counties currently make up prosecutorial District 7, which is overseen by a shared district attorney. Republican Matt Foster of Hancock was elected to the post in 2014 and again in 2018. At the request of Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis, state Rep. Will Tuell (R-East Machias) has proposed a bill that, if approved by the Legislature, would put the question of whether to dissolve District 7 to voters in both counties in November.
District 7 has offices in Ellsworth, Machias and Calais. Due to staffing issues, Washington County sees a lot of its district attorney. Foster currently spends three days a week in Machias and one in Calais. Yet, 75 percent of the district’s cases arise in neighboring Hancock County. Foster says the arrangement is not ideal, but he’s allocating his time where the need is greatest. The district currently has 2.5 assistant district attorney positions vacant. Attracting qualified applicants to rural Washington County is a challenge due to the location, workload and pay.
Bill proponents say District 7’s resources are spread too thin. True, but dissolving one district to create two could worsen the problem. Funding for the salaries of district attorneys and assistant district attorneys in the state comes from the same pool overseen by the Office of the Attorney General. There’s only so much money to go around and funding is lagging for the existing districts.
By statute, Maine now has eight prosecutorial districts. Only Aroostook, Cumberland and York counties have their own district attorneys. Everyone else shares with one or more other counties. District 3 includes Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties, for example. District 6 includes Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties. Centralized leadership creates some efficiencies, including sharing software and technology costs and the ability to reassign staff as needed. Assistant prosecutors in Ellsworth help work cases in short-staffed Washington County.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees Americans the right to a speedy trial, but anyone familiar with today’s judicial system knows its pace is more tortoise than hare. Washington County officials have every right to be frustrated by a shortage of local prosecutors and a backlog of cases. But the district’s size is secondary to the real issues: funding and the availability of qualified help. Officials should try to alleviate those problems before broaching the topic of dissolving the district.
Maine has a relatively small population spread out over a wide geographic area. The tax base can’t support local control over all services. Counties and towns need to be looking for ways to jointly shoulder the load. When these partnerships falter, the knee-jerk reaction can be to call the whole thing off. What we need to ask first is, can we make this work?