Maine has 6th highest racial disparity within its incarcerated population, report finds

In 2021, Black Mainers were locked up at a rate 9.2 times higher than white Mainers

By: - September 29, 2023 12:04 pm
Maine State Prison

Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine. (photo via Department of Corrections)

Maine’s incarcerated population contains startling racial disparities, according to a new data analysis, as Black residents of the state were locked up at a rate 9.2 times higher than white people as of 2021.  

Information published Wednesday by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, found the racial disparities in Maine’s incarcerated population to be the sixth highest in the nation. New Jersey’s rate of racial disparities was the largest, with Black residents there imprisoned at a rate nearly 12 times higher than white people, followed by Wisconsin, Connecticut, California, Rhode Island and then Maine. Still, every state had such a disparity, with the smallest found in Hawaii, where Black people were 2.4 times more likely to be imprisoned. 

The racial disparities in Maine’s carceral settings came in well above the overall nationwide average, in which Black people were imprisoned at a rate six times higher than white people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative report. Overall, Black people in Maine accounted for 11% of those in prison in 2021 but made up only 1% of the state’s overall population. 

Research has shown that disparities in the prison population are a continued legacy of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs launched in the 1970s that was targeted at criminalizing people of color. More recently, the enforcement of drug laws has remained heavily racialized, with Black people disproportionately arrested for such activity despite using drugs at similar rates as white people. Furthermore, policies that create mandatory minimums for some crimes have resulted in much longer sentences for Black people than those who are white, also contributing to the racial disparities in prisons.

Meagan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine, said she is not surprised by the data showing significant racial disparities in Maine’s carceral institutions. Sway pointed out that such disparities have also shown up in other areas, including within Maine’s unhoused population and with health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic

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When it comes to incarceration, Sway said there are a litany of issues that contribute to the racial disparities seen in Maine. She said over-policing in certain places has led to Black people being more likely to be arrested than white people. Then, because structural barriers contribute to Black people making less money on average than white people, Sway said they are less likely to make bail and more likely to be stuck in jail awaiting trial. Furthermore, she said Black defendants are less frequently offered diversions from prosecution and often receive harsher sentences.   

“It’s just compounding harm, and all of these compounding harms mean that by the time you get to incarceration rates in prison, it is no surprise that Black people are 9.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white people,” Sway said. 

While Sway said reforming drug laws that have disproportionately impacted people of color and eliminating strict bail statutes could help lower these disparities, she emphasized that there is easy solution. 

“It goes to show why focusing on a wide range of criminal legal reforms is so important because there’s so many points where bias infects the system, and so if we are not attacking that on all fronts, we will see people of color, especially Black people, treated more harshly by our laws,” she said. 

Along with reporting on racial disparities, the Prison Policy Initiative also found that in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, which had more severe impacts on those behind bars, around 3,000 people were incarcerated across prisons and jails in Maine. 

More recent data on the number of people in Maine prisons specifically shows that the population has dropped from the levels seen in 2017 and 2018 but ticked up since 2021. While far below the national average in the U.S., Maine still has an extremely high incarceration rate relative to many other countries. In fact, a previous report by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2021 found that the state imprisons people at a rate similar to Russia.

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Evan Popp
Evan Popp

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College. He joins Maine Morning Star following three years at Maine Beacon writing about statewide politics. Before that, he worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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