Wisconsin’s Incarceration Problem
Extreme Racial Disparities in Wisconsin’s Corrections System Have Worsened since King’s Death
As we contemplate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the unfinished business that needs to be tackled to achieve racial and ethnic equality, one of the issues that jump out at me is the huge growth in prison populations – particularly among African American males. That was a topic at many MLK observations across the nation today, but nowhere is it a bigger problem than in Wisconsin.
A report by the UWM Employment and Training Institute issued in 2013 pointed out the following data, most of which is derived from the 2010 Census:
- Wisconsin had a higher rate than any other state of working age African American men who were behind bars in state prisons and local jails; in fact, no other state was even close to the Wisconsin rate. (See the graph on page 8 of their report.)
- The WI incarceration rate of working age black males, 12.8%, is nearly double the national average of 6.7% of working age African American men, and 10 times the rate for white males in our state.
- Wisconsin also leads the nation in imprisoning Native American men, with 7.6% of male, working age American Indians in state prisons and local jails in 2010, compared to 3.1% nationally.
- The high black incarceration rate is particularly a problem in Milwaukee County, where “over half of African American men in their 30s have served time in state prison.”
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) chose the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday to release a new report: “Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” The report examines the “extraordinary growth of the imprisonment rate” in the U.S. over the past 40 years.” Some of the key facts from the report include the following:
- The rate of imprisonment in state and federal correctional facilities was essentially flat from the 1930s through the mid-1970s, before increasing four-fold over the next several decades.
- That increase can be attributed to policy choices; a 2013 study concluded that not more than 9% of the increase since 1984 resulted from changes in criminal behavior.
- Although “blacks have historically experienced incarceration rates above their proportion in society…. the disparity has become exacerbated over time.” (See Figure H.)
- The growth has been driven by a jump in arrest rates for drug possession – which grew by more than 200% since 1980 among blacks and by a little over 100% among whites. (Figure F)
The EPI report, which was written by Robynn Cox, an assistant professor in the economics department at Spelman College, has a number of recommendations, including the following:
- Identify and eliminate systemic racial bias in the enforcement of law, which has contributed to “a dual system of justice: one for whites and another for blacks and other minorities.”
- Investigate the option of decriminalizing drugs.
- Increase the diversity of people working in the criminal justice system.
- Shift resources from the prison system “towards social programs that improve the quality of education, and enhance the job skills and employment specifically of marginalized youth.”
The EPI report is well worth reading, but an even better bet for those concerned about the fact that the prison population in Wisconsin has more than tripled since 1990 is to read the report by WISDOM titled “Ending Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin.” Their report does a great job of explaining the need for making large reforms in Wisconsin’s corrections system, provides examples of people caught in the system, and makes a number of Wisconsin-specific recommendations.