Excerpted From: Maybell Romero, Viewing Access to Justice for Rural Mainers of Color Through a Prosecution Lens, 71 Maine Law Review 227 (2019) (98 Footnotes) (Full Document)

MaybellRomeroIn August of 2016, Governor Paul LePage made a series of statements that, rightfully, scandalized and angered numerous constituencies, but especially people of color. Earlier the same year, LePage blamed Maine's drug problems on “guys” by the name of “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” who would, supposedly, travel to Maine “from Connecticut and New York.” He stated that, apart from selling heroin, “half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave.”

When asked to explain these remarks on August 24, 2016, LePage opted to dig himself into a deeper hole. Explaining that he had taken the time to put together a binder collecting information on all the drug arrests in the state, he added that “90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it's a three-ringed binder, are black and Hispanic people” and “[l]et me tell you something: Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers. You ought to look into that.”

Even though his estimation was grossly inaccurate and strongly inflected with racist sentiment, LePage's remarks did reflect a misunderstanding under which many Americans currently labor--that all of rural and nearly rural America is uniformly White and monolithically conservative. Depictions of rural society and life, not only pop-culturally, but by news media and even some legal scholars often suffer from an urbanormativity that often ignores the unique features and nuances of life in rural communities.

The demographics of rural America are quickly changing, however. People of color now constitute seventeen percent of rural America's population. The rural population of color is well positioned to surpass the rural White population at some point given that one-third of the rural population of color are under age eighteen, while only one-fourth of the rural White population consists of those under eighteen. Maine, in particular, has seen demographic changes over the past four years, with Maine and West Virginia being the only states in the country where deaths outpace births. The state, however, has still enjoyed population growth, reversing a brief decline in 2015. This growth was thanks to “newcomers from other parts of the country and the world ....” These changes have been especially pronounced in Maine's primary school population; in 2000, “only 18 Maine schools had fewer than 90% white students. In 2014-15, there were fifty such schools--and at five of those schools, white students made up less than half the student body.” Between 2000 and 2010, every county in the state saw a double-digit percent of growth of residents of color.

New Americans, both immigrants and refugees, will be essential in helping to sustain local Maine economies and industries that would have difficulties finding workers otherwise. A recent NPR radio story provides a useful perspective on immigrants boosting Maine's workforce, highlighting small towns like Milbridge, which has experienced a dramatic increase in its Latino population due to jobs in lobster processing plants, agricultural harvesting, and other jobs that are demanding in terms of manual labor. As Maine's White population both ages and moves away, it can be expected that Maine will become even more attractive to new Americans seeking cheaper land and safe environments in which to raise their families.

There have been laudable efforts in Maine to attract new residents and to help make transitions after moving to the state a bit easier. The Maine Revenue Service administers the Opportunity Maine Tax Credit, providing reimbursements for student loans under certain circumstances. A number of non-profit organizations operate in the state with goals such as helping recent immigrants establish themselves as farmers, providing interpretation and translation services, and helping new Mainers learn English and gain financial literacy skills. Maine's criminal justice system, however, remains plagued by inequities that can be observed when looking at rates of police contact by certain populations as well as incarceration rates.

While other scholars, both legal and sociological, as well as governmental agencies, have focused on a number of factors that influence racially-based inequities in the criminal justice system, including access to counsel and policing, there has been comparatively little discussion as to what prosecutors themselves can do to foster better relationships with communities of color, particularly in rural areas. This paper seeks to address the relationship between rural Mainers of color and prosecutors.

In Part II, it explores the meaning of “rural” and how the understanding of rurality influences the discussion of rural issues.

Part III explores relationships between prosecutors and people of color, looking at prosecutors' offices not only in Maine but in other predominately rural states and regions as well. Part IV offers some practical solutions to improving those relationships.

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If prosecutors as a whole were better able to monitor their own conduct and make conscientious efforts to understand how phenomena such as implicit bias may affect how they approach their jobs, suggestions such as “doctrinal change [,] ... disciplinary sanctions,” or, as this paper advocate, mandatory data collection and standardized interoffice training on racism, bias, and cultural competence would not be needed.

Speaking from a purely public choice theory perspective, there are a number of reasons why prosecutors should care about the particular struggles of rural Mainers of color, as well as Mainers of color through the entire state. Bipartisan criminal justice reform has found greater support throughout the country and from both major political parties. Even organizations perceived as being far right, such as Koch Industries, have come to very strongly support criminal justice reform and be leaders in its implementation. Prosecutors should generally be interested in criminal justice reform, including promoting racial equities, if only for the long-term political advantageousness of doing so.

A number of other incentives, as well as utilitarian concerns, should convince Maine prosecutors as a whole to care about racial equity and justice. While procedural fairness is a goal that prosecutors should strive for given their roles as ministers of justice, studies have shown that “people are more likely to comply with legal authority they perceive to be legitimate ....” If prosecutors hope to foster a culture of law-abidingness, projecting greater authority by caring about all segments of their respective jurisdictions' populaces should be something they prioritize. 

Assistant Professor, Northern Illinois University College of Law.