WEST BARNSTABLE — After the Nov. 8 election, the Cape & Islands will have a new district attorney for the first time in two decades.
Defense attorney Rob Galibois, the Democrat running on a platform of improving transparency and adding a mental health session to the Barnstable courts, is competing against Republican Dan Higgins, a Barnstable assistant district attorney for 13 years, who has promised to continue the work of retiring D.A. Michael O’Keefe by prosecuting high-level drug traffickers and violent offenders.
The two candidates faced off before about 200 people in a debate at the Tilden Arts Center at Cape Cod Community College on Oct. 12. Their next debate is Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. on WXTK-FM.
Galibois has called this a “generational election,” saying it would be the first real administration change since the office was created in 1974 under Republican D.A. Phil Rollins, who held the position until 2002 when O’Keefe took over. O’Keefe had worked for 20 years under Rollins as an assistant.
Galibois said he would create a mental health session, like the Barnstable County drug court, which requires defendants with drug addictions to get treatment in lieu of incarceration. Mental health courts exist in Roxbury, Cambridge, Greenfield, Lowell, Plymouth, Quincy, and Springfield, according to the state court system.
“I have seen mental health specialty sessions up and running in counties all across the Commonwealth,” Galibois said. “And I have not heard anyone in this present office demanding a mental health session.”
Galibois said he received the endorsement of Attorney General Maura Healey specifically because of his promise to introduce both a mental health session and a special session for military veterans who get in trouble with the law.
Higgins has received endorsements from O’Keefe, Barnstable Sheriff James Cummings, the Barnstable County Correctional Officers Union, and the police unions of Sandwich, Mashpee, Falmouth, Dennis, Chatham, Bourne, and Barnstable, according to his campaign.
Higgins said that O’Keefe’s office already considers the mental health of defendants in its daily deliberations.
“We have a screening process,” Higgins said. “Some people with mental health are never arraigned. Some have their cases dismissed, when appropriate, and they are given a path to treatment. Sometimes there is a victim crime that needs to be prosecuted, and the person is criminally responsible.”
Higgins emphasized that Massachusetts is already a very lenient state when it comes to incarceration. It ranks next to last, 49th out of 50, in incarceration rates.
“It is important that everyone knows that,” Higgins said. “We do not have everyone locked up in this state. It is meant for individuals who commit crimes of violence and for those who are trafficking fentanyl on our streets. I will make sure that we prosecute those cases fully. I will make sure those people are locked up. But you need to know that we do not have an over-incarceration problem in this state. Our jails do have room. And I believe in treating people fairly.”
The League of Women Voters, which organized this debate, asked Debra Dagwan of the Mass. Women of Color Coalition and reporters from the Cape Cod Times to ask the candidates two questions each. Audience inquiries took up the rest of the hour-long debate.
One citizen asked the candidates how they would handle the fact that people of color are overrepresented in the criminal courts as defendants.
Higgins said, “We don’t go out seeking people or targeting people to go into the court system. They have been under arrest after someone has called us. And if the court determines probable cause exists, a complaint is issued.”
Higgins said the prosecutors are obligated to make decisions based on the facts of a case and not on how someone “self-identifies.”
The candidates also debated how they would create a diverse staff of assistants.
Higgins said he would attempt to recruit the “best and brightest” to serve in the Cape & Islands office and would “welcome the applications of all, including those from communities that are underrepresented.”
Galibois said there has not been an assistant district attorney of color since at least 1995, when he began working in Barnstable. He said one assistant D.A., a woman of color, left in 1994. If he is elected, he said, he will form a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee to help recruit minorities to become assistant D.A.s.
According to a 2015 MassInc. study, black defendants made up 25 percent of all those arrested in Barnstable County but are only 2.4 percent of the population, Galibois said.
The issue of arresting minorities at higher rates, Galibois said, could be addressed if the ethnic backgrounds of defendants were tracked and available to the public. O’Keefe’s office does not keep such data now.
Higgins said the Mass. trial courts should collect and keep data so the statistics are comparable and uniform for each county. It should not be up to the D.A. or the police to collect ethnicity data during an arrest and booking because the defendant may not be cooperative, he said.
Galibois argued that O’Keefe’s office already gets this information, they just don’t want to keep it, because then they would have to be responsible for responding to the trends that they see.
Both candidates promised to change O’Keefe’s practice of stonewalling journalists who are, as Cape Cod Times reporter Sarah Carlon said, “an extension of the community.”
“I will ensure that we answer the phone when the press calls and that phone will be on 24/7,” Higgins said.
“We will be readily accessible to the press,” Galibois said. “That is part of what we talked about earlier in regard to accountability and transparency.”
While Galibois returned a call from the Independent for this story, Higgins did not return repeated calls.