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Craig Mastantuono Feb. 28, 2014

(Part II of a continuing series in the M&C blog on race in the Wisconsin criminal justice system)

We Don't Talk About This

Justice is Blind. The Law Applies Equally to All. Everyone is Treated Fairly in our Justice System.

These are the things that lawyers, prosecutors, and judges tell each other in the American criminal justice system. Before we ever enter law school, we are taught that our system is fair. In law school that ideal is only reinforced. And within the practice of law, if we challenge that assumption, we face an uphill task in convincing our colleagues, be they judges, prosecutors or other attorneys, that our system can be structurally unfair. That it treats men of color differently. Even when confronted with examples of pattern injustice within our system, we fail to acknowledge it, and when that injustice is based on racial inequality, we acknowledge it even less. We really don't want to talk about it. To do so would go against everything that we believe and were taught about our system: that it is fair. To do so forces us to discuss race, still a delicate and explosive isssue to confront. To do so is to acknowledge that we work in a system that produces flawed results, that can be racially unfair. We don't want to be a part of that, so we don't talk about it. After all, we're justice professionals, not injustice professionals. 

A University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) study completed late last year reveals that the State of Wisconsin incarcerates black males at a much higher rate than any other state in America. Our #1 ranking at locking up black men looks like this:

African American Incarceration infographic

*UWM study p.2. 

We're clearly the best at putting black men behind bars, far and away. One may think that this would spur a frank and robust conversation in the local justice community to determine how this happened, and to do something about it. But that conversation simply hasn't happened yet, demonstrating our unwillingness to confront Wisconsin's dubious achievement.

Ideally, justice is blind. Ideally, the law does apply equally to all. And ideally, everyone is treated fairly in our criminal justice system. But the law is an ideal, and in practice, its results are a function of the people working the system. In Wisconsin, while aiming for justice, we've clearly missed the mark, impacting black men with unjust results, and larger society with the fallout that occurs when justice is dispensed unfairly. We should talk about this. We should acknowledge this. We should own it, and we should do something to change it. Talking about race and acknowledging injustice is never easy, especially when that recognition involves a system that we like to believe is always fair and just. 

But until we start the conversation, nothing will change.

Next up: Black Life Is Cheaper