A self-explainatory sign on the Green Bay prison’s outer wall. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A new report by the Sentencing Project is casting a damning light on Wisconsin’s incarceration of Black and brown people. The report, drawing on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that one out of every 36 Black Wisconsin adults is incarcerated within a state prison — giving the state the highest incarceration rate of African Americans in the country.
To put that into perspective, the national rate of incarceration for Black American adults is one in every 81. Wisconsin is also one of just seven states that maintains an incarceration disparity between white and Black residents that is higher than nine to one. In Wisconsin, African Americans make up just 6% of the state population with nearly 70% of the Black population residing in Milwaukee County. The City of Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated American cities, where life expectancy also can vary by up to 12 years depending on which zip code you’re born into. Systemic racism itself was declared a public health emergency in Milwaukee County in 2019.
Wisconsin’s Black incarceration rate of one out of every 36 stands out even when compared to states with similar rates. Second-place Oklahoma came in significantly lower, with a rate of one out of every 42. Oklahoma’s Black incarceration rate tied with Idaho. Those two second-place states were followed by Montana in third place at one incarcerated Black resident for every 44, according to the report. Then came Arizona, with a Black incarceration rate of one out of every 48.
In Wisconsin, 42% of the state prison population in 2019 was African Americans. Latino residents made up 8% of the prison population, despite being just 7% of the state’s overall population. New Mexico leads the nation in Latino incarceration, with a rate of 60% in state prisons. The report identified three key recommendations to help combat these high rates. The number one recommendation was to abolish mandatory sentences for all crimes.
“Mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, and mandatory transfer of juveniles to the adult criminal system give prosecutors too much authority while limiting the discretion of impartial judges,” the report states. “These policies contributed to a substantial increase in sentence length and time served in prison, disproportionately imposing unduly harsh sentences on Black and Latinx individuals.”
Next, the report presses the importance of what it describes as “prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes.” It explains that, “the Sentencing Project urges states to adopt forecasting estimates that will calculate the impact of proposed crime legislation on different populations in order to minimize or eliminate the racially disparate impacts of certain laws and policies.”
The report points out that several states have passed racial impact statement laws. “To undo the racial and ethnic disparity resulting from decades of tough-on-crime policies, however, states should also repeal existing racially biased laws and policies. The impact of racial impact laws will be modest at best if they remain only forward looking.” Lastly the report takes a shot at the drug war by stressing the need to decriminalize low-level drug offenses. It notes that, “these convictions generally drive further and deeper involvement in the criminal legal system.”
Advocates have focused both on antiquated criminal justice policies in Wisconsin and its disproportionately Black and brown prison population in recent years. Activists pushing for the downsizing, closure or abolition of prisons in Wisconsin have repeatedly called attention to Wisconsin’s numerous over-crowded, decades-old facilities. Efforts to slow down the drug war in Wisconsin, particularly against cannabis, have had mixed results. Although some municipalities have either reduced penalties for cannabis or decriminalized it, state Republicans wouldn’t entertain legalization. Recently, bills have been introduced to increase existing felony penalties for some cannabis products.
“There is not enough attention paid or action required to end the chronic racial disparities that pervade state prisons,” states the Sentencing Project report. “If we continue to ignore or tolerate these disparities, the United States is unlikely to achieve the serious, sustainable reforms that are needed to end mass incarceration. Overall, the pace of criminal justice reform has been too slow as well as too modest in its goals.”
“Accelerated reforms that deliberately incorporate the goal of racial justice will lead to a system that is both much smaller and fairer,” the report concludes.
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