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Maine Gov. LePage overestimated black crime, a typical American error

Overestimating the amount of crime committed by certain racial and ethnic minority groups is not new, nor is it limited to a particular region or politician.

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    Main. Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference in January at the State House in Augusta, Maine. LePage drew harsh rebuke last month for suggesting that most drug dealers arrested in his state are black and Hispanic people from Connecticut and New York.
    Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
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This week's release of 148 pages from a three-ring binder in which Maine Gov. Paul LePage loosely tracked drug-related arrests in his state confirmed that Mr. LePage had severely overestimated the number of non-white drug dealers.

Despite harsh rebukes for the remark, Governor LePage stood by his claim that black and Hispanic defendants constitute "90-plus percent" of those from outside Maine accused of trafficking heroin and similar drugs in the state. But his own binder, released Monday pursuant to a public records request, says otherwise.

Less than half of the book's 93 mug shots appear to depict black or Hispanic faces, as The Portland Press Herald reported.

This overestimation of the crime committed by certain racial and ethnic minority groups is not new, nor is it limited to a particular region or politician. The error is characteristic of lingering racial animus that's rooted in American history, Michele Jawando, vice president of legal progress at the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy and research group, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

“I think the first thing that comes to mind is the unfortunate reality in our country that there is a percentage of, I would say, people in leadership – disproportionately, white men – who have a view and a vantage about black people or Hispanics that associates the whole’s characteristic with some type of criminality,” Mrs. Jawando says.

Furthermore, even statistics produced by the criminal justice system convey a racial bias of their own, since black defendants are arrested more often and punished with longer sentences than their white counterparts, Jawando adds.

"Inherent within our system there are major issues when we look at how we treat people of color and how we arrest, sentence, prosecute, stop, and frisk people of color in this country for the same crimes that our white brothers and sisters commit," Jawando says.

And research suggests the bias is not limited to police and judges. When a national survey in 2010 asked members of the general public to estimate the percentage of burglaries, juvenile crimes, and illegal drug sales committed by black people, white Americans overestimated black participation by 20 to 30 percent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based policy and advocacy group.

It is true in Maine that out-of-state defendants in LePage's binder were disproportionately black and Hispanic, but that's to be expected in the country's whitest state, as The Atlantic reported. About 94 percent of Mainers are non-Hispanic whites, according to US Census Bureau estimates.

Of the 1,211 people arrested in Maine for allegedly making or selling all types of drugs in 2014 – the most recent year for which data from the FBI Criminal Justice Information Service is available – 14.1 percent were black, as The Portland Press Herald reported. That's about 10 times the percentage of Maine residents who are black.

Along with the rest of New England, Maine is dealing with widespread problem of addiction to heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids. Last year, Maine saw a record-high 272 overdose deaths.

Maine leaders – who have been known for their bipartisanship – should turn their attention away from the distractions and address the problem at hand, says state Rep. Drew Gattine, a Democrat who has been critical of LePage's comment.

“My concern with the governor is that we’re at the point now where, more often than not, we’re talking about issues other than the real problem, and I think this is an example," Representative Gattine tells the Monitor.

The solutions, Gattine says, include preventive education, more support for law enforcement, and a renewed commitment to facilitating treatment for drug users who ask for help.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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