We usually vote for people on Election Day, not for philosophy. But this year’s election for Cumberland County district attorney could be different.

For one thing, incumbent DA Stephanie Anderson is not seeking re-election to the job she has held since her election in 1990. New leadership after such a long time with one person in charge of the institution is going to lead to change of some kind, no matter who takes her place.

And this election comes as there is a growing body of research that suggests that traditional approaches to law enforcement are making bad problems worse, and jurisdictions are experimenting with new models that aim to address the root causes of crime, including untreated mental illness, racial discrimination and poverty.

The question of how the criminal justice system in Maine’s most populous county should respond to these ideas – if it should respond at all – will be on the ballot this year just as much as any candidate’s name. The next few months will give voters a once-in-a-generation chance to debate the kind of approach that they want to see going forward.

That is, if they bother to tune in. County politics don’t usually get much attention, and most people think criminal justice doesn’t really affect them. If you are surprised that the district attorney is an elected position, you are not alone.

But few people realize how much power a district attorney really has. Thousands of cases flow through the courtrooms in Cumberland County every year, and almost all of them are resolved with a plea, not a trial.

Prosecutors control what charges they take to a grand jury and what plea terms they offer to defendants. Without plea bargaining, the system could never handle the huge volume of cases, so any district attorney has to set priorities. That discretion gives prosecutors a lot of say in determining who goes to jail and what offenses have the toughest penalties. It also puts them in a unique position to implement reform.

Finding the next DA will be a two-step process.

First up will be a Democratic primary June 12, in which defense attorneys Jon Gale and Seth Levy will face Freyla Tarpinian, an assistant district attorney in Kennebec County. All three are firmly in the reform camp, promising to attack the opioid epidemic as a health crisis, divert juvenile defendants into community-based programs and making sure that people aren’t staying in jail solely because they can’t afford to pay high bail and fines.

In November the Democratic nominee will run against Republican Randall Bates (who is unopposed in his party’s primary) and unenrolled candidate Jonathan Saurbeck, a current assistant DA in Anderson’s office. Both are opposed to the reformers’ biggest ideas, and say that a defendant’s need for treatment should be balanced with the public safety.

I don’t have the space here to parse the fine points of all five candidates’ positions on the issues. You can find questionnaires that they’ve filled out and a video of a candidate forum (which I moderated) posted on a website created by the ACLU of Maine, DAforME.com.

But I do have room to say how important this race is.

Most of the issues are not new. No matter how you ultimately vote, engaging in this DA’s race requires coming to terms with some facts that are familiar but still ugly.

Everybody knows that most people in prison started life poor. Getting in trouble with the law may be more than just a bad thing that happens more often to poor people. It can itself be a force that makes people poor, rendering them practically unemployable and keeping them that way for life.

We also know that people of color are overrepresented in jails or prisons. Unless you believe that these groups are morally inferior, you have to see there’s something unjust built into our system of justice that won’t go away just because we have good intentions. No one needs to be personally biased for the system in which they work to perpetuate unequal treatment.

How many times do we have to hear law enforcement officials say, “We can’t arrest our way out of the opioid crisis” without following the logic through to a conclusion? Arrest remains the go-to option. We still have a system that treats mental illness and addiction as side issues that can be dealt with after we punish bad behavior, filling the jails with people who should be in treatment.

The criminal justice system is where some people have to pay for society’s falling short of its ideals. That also makes it a place where you can achieve real change.

That’s a big deal – and that’s what’s on the ballot this year.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: gregkesich