LEWISTON, Maine - Leading players in the criminal justice system offered very different views Thursday on whether minorities in Maine face tougher sentences than whites for the crimes they commit. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, state lawmakers and current inmates shared their thoughts on sentencing disparities at a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing in Lewiston.
In 2010, according to the most recent U.S. Census, minorities made up just under 1 percent of Maine's overall population of more than 1.3 million people. But they accounted for 7 percent of the 2,000-plus people in the state prison system.
The underlying question before a Maine committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Are minorities and whites in the state's criminal justice system being treated the same way?
"I think there's a case to be made that there could be modifications to sentencing. But I don't think it's rampant with discriminatory decisions," says Mark Dion, Democratic state representative from Portland, and a former Cumberland County sheriff.
Dion, who's now a defense attorney, co-chairs the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. "Some of the men that we're concerned about committed heinous crimes, significant crimes. And it would require an assesment of their individual case files to determine if he court went outside the river bank," Dion says. "I've never been quick to rush to judgement until I have hard data in front of me to make that decision."
Dion says any disparity in sentencing in Maine is there by design. "State statute and constitutional considerations require an evaluation of the defendant's profile. Such an inquiry will undoubtedly yield disparate, but not discriminatory, results."
But discriminatory sentencing happens on a routine basis, says one longtime criminal defense attorney. Lenny Sharon says the disparities faced by minorities convicted of crimes in Maine begin well before they're actually sentenced. "The disparity begins with people who are stopped, people who are searched, people who are arrested," Sharon says.
Sharon says the entire criminal justice system in the state is weighted against people of color. "There's one judge of color," he says. "I know of no prosecutors of color. I know of no defense lawyers of color. And there are very few law enforcement people of color."
Maine, of course, is one of the whitest states in the nation. Which makes it extremely difficult, as well, to seat racially and ethnically diverse juries when minority defendants go to trial.