Gov. Janet Mills last week nominated the first Black judge to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Judge Rick Lawrence’s confirmation would be a giant step for Maine’s minority and Black communities.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth.

This news could not have come at a better time as Maine heads into a gubernatorial election year, when we will have to choose between a former governor, who called Black people rapists who bring drugs into the state, and the current governor, who has nominated the first Black man to the state’s highest court.

I personally worked with Lawrence as an interpreter a few years back when he was a district judge, and I remember how he understood the racial disparities that minorities experience in the justice system in the state, whether in housing, juvenile cases, and even immigration.

Maine’s Black communities face a system that does not allow them to have the resources required to support their cases, which often leads to wrongful convictions. This is often so because we are in a state that is overwhelmingly white, where Black people are assumed to be criminals and drug dealers and receive the most severe sentences compared to other races in the state.

Data shows that Maine’s Black people, who only make up 1% of the total population, account for 21% of Class A felony drug arrests and 15% of Class B felony drug arrests. Maine’s immigrant population, who are also predominantly Black, gets caught up in a system that has been unjust to Black men and women. For these new arrivals to thrive they would need Maine’s criminal justice system to become more equitable, effective and humane. They often receive harsher sentences because the courts don’t understand their cultural backgrounds and community lifestyle. During my years of work in local district courts, I have come to learn there is a massive lack of information-sharing between New Mainer communities and Maine judges, who are all white.

Judge Lawrence has a lot of experience in these racial disparities, and he would be the one who can restore the Black communities’ faith in the Maine justice system. He could be the person who understands the psychological challenges incarceration has brought upon Maine’s Black and brown communities. Lawrence would also connect with communities across the state to work on programs to inform communities about drugs and other offenses that result in the tough charges against people in Maine’s criminal justice system.

While Lawrence’s nomination and/or confirmation may not immediately help ease the pain of the justice system, it would be a step towards making Maine more welcoming and making its people feel the “Welcome Home” slogan is theirs. It was only a couple of months ago when New Mainers celebrated the election of the state’s first Somali-American mayor; this made them proud of their new state.

While that representation matters a lot, the most critical representation is the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and Lawrence, if approved, will have to look carefully at wrongful convictions of Black people, teens in adult prisons and excessive punishments that Black people in this state have been facing for years. It is about time someone challenges these issues at the highest level and advocate for systemic reform. We expect Lawrence to reach out to us.

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