WISCONSIN: WE’RE THE BEST AT LOCKING UP AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN – PART I: THE PROBLEM

The Problem

January 20th, 2014 – Martin Luther King Day

For 21 years, I’ve worked as an attorney in a state whose criminal justice system is the best in the country at incarcerating African American men. It’s a national holiday today, commemorating the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I just can’t square this.

Wisconsin’s supremacy at locking up black men is not a matter of opinion. The proof is in the numbers, revealed and analyzed in a 2013 study on this issue by Milwaukee’s own University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). Some of the highlights from that study:

When the U.S. Census Bureau conducted its decennial count of Wisconsin residents in 2010, it found 12.8% (or 1 in 8) of African American working age men behind bars in state prisons or local jails. This rate of mass incarceration is the highest for African American men in the country and nearly double the national average of 6.7% (or 1 in 15).

The same census statistics show that Wisconsin not only leads the nation in this category, but is significantly ahead of the next closest state, Oklahoma, with a 9.7% rate.

Wisconsin Department of Correction records show incarceration rates at epidemic levels for African American males in Milwaukee County, with over half of African American men in their 30’s and half of African American men in their early 40’s having been incarcerated in state correctional facilities.

I graduated law school in 1992, and moved from Chicago to Milwaukee to begin a career as a Wisconsin State Public Defender. I was a typical young P.D., motivated by a sense of social justice, and eager to work hard and try to help people, a believer in the fairness of the American criminal justice system. In the years since, my work in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system has taught me much about crime, punishment, and race. I still believe that Wisconsin’s criminal justice systen can be fair, but I am under no illusion that it is always fair, and race is often involved when it falls short. I cannot ignore the numbers, which only confirm what I have suspected and seen over the years. I've been a part of this system, and this day marks the beginning of an effort to affect a change.

So what do we do about it? Our firm will spend this year writing periodically on this subject, talking about it, and trying to explore, from a practitioner’s standpoint, the reasons that Wisconsin has achieved this dubious distinction. There is not an easy or simple answer, but we hope to bring attention to some of the problems, and spark further conversation. 

Next up: We Don’t Talk About This.


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