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Craig Mastantuono Nov. 30, 2014

An interesting story appears in today's (11/30/14) Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about two men who killed others while driving recklessly and under the influence of intoxicants, and their respective unequal treatment serving prison sentences in Wisconsin. The story offers us the opportunity to supplement our occasional series on Wisconsin's distinction as the number one state in the country at incarcerating black men, and to make some comparative observations about Wisconsin's prison system and that of our neighbor to the west, Minnesota.

First, from the J/S story, Similar Cases Yield Very Different Results in Wisconsin Prison System: "[Inmates] Whiteside and Urness shared a prison cell for more than six months. Theirs is a story of redemption, both behind bars and on the outside. It is also a story that reveals how Wisconsin's Truth in Sentencing law doesn't necessarily mean more prison time for a similar crime — but in the state with the highest rate of African-American incarceration in the country, being black just might."

Being black can indeed make a difference, as we've observed in prior posts on race and incarceration. But so can our state laws and intellectual culture on crime and punishment. Put another way, have we built and supported a criminal justice system that gets it right? One that accomplishes effective intervention in criminal conduct, while utilizing limited resources wisely and efficiently? A comparison of Wisconsin and neighbor Minnesota suggests that that these two states have very different approaches in how they address such questions. Let's take a look at the numbers.

First, in terms of population and makeup, the two states are quite similar: Wisconsin's population is 5,686,986; Minnesota's is 5,303,925. Both states have largest cities similar in size: Milwaukee, 599,164; Minneapolis/St. Paul, 400,070/294,873 (694,973 tot.). African-American resident rates are similar: Wisconsin's black population rate is 6.3% and Minnesota's is 5.2%. And respective crime rates are nearly identical: in Wisconsin, 2,670 crimes per 100,000 people; in Minnesota, 2,770 crimes per 100,000 people.

But when one considers each state's incarceration statistics, the similarities end. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections currently manages a prison population of 21,800 adult inmates; Minnesota's Department of Corrections managed an institution population of 9,768 adult inmates as of Jan. 1, 2014. That's an astounding difference for two states so similar in makeup. Wisconsin incarcerates a nation-leading 12.8% of its adult black males, while Minnesota ranks 31st in black male incarceration at 5.8%, less than half the rate of Wisconsin. The states' respective corrections budgets also differ greatly: Minnesota's Dept. of Corrections prison-related expenditures totalled $365.5 million in 2010; Wisconsin's Dept. of Corrections prison-related expenditures totalled 800.3 million in the same year

How can two very similar neighboring states imprison people and spend money on corrections so differently? Is either state doing something better? Or worse? Is Wisconsin's system of determining who gets incarcerated affected by implicit racial bias? Are we spending our money wisely?

Debate surrounding these questions is overdue, and recently, we've noticed that greater attention is being paid to issues of crime, punishment, and race in our state; today's J/S story is an example.

So, has Wisconsin fallen behind the learning curve in corrections policy? That's the subject of our next post.

Our Prior Posts on Race and the Wisconsin Criminal Justice System:

Part One: The Problem

Part Two: We Don't Talk About This

Part Three: Black Life is Cheaper

Part Four: Wisconsin Is Behind The Learning Curve in Criminal Justice.