A decade ago, Dane County launched task forces to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A few years before that, Madison launched its Study Circles on Race program. The Madison Police Department, facing criticism for pulling over and arresting blacks at an alarming rate, began training officers to recognize their own implicit biases. And seven years ago, the Madison School District unveiled its framework to deal with the vast achievement gap between black and white students.
Today, the disparities are as wide as ever. In 2004, blacks, who made up 6% of the city’s population, accounted for about 15% of traffic citations and 29% of arrests. Last year, at 7% of the population, blacks were issued a quarter of city traffic citations, and in 2018 constituted 43% of arrests. In the same time frame, the proportion of black juveniles arrested went from 49% to 66%. In 2010, blacks made up 44% of inmates at the Dane County Jail; in 2018, it was 46%.
In Madison schools last semester, blacks who make up 18% of students, were handed 57% of all out-of-school suspensions. Last year, the district posted modest gains in black student achievement and graduation rates in its annual report, which it attributed to implementation of its 2012 framework, but the achievement gap remains among the worst in the nation.
Officials point to progress, but it’s hard to argue that Madison and Dane County are anywhere close to solving their racial disparity problems when black kids are arrested at seven times the rate of white kids, where the black unemployment rate more than doubles that of whites, and where housing costs make home ownership — and sometimes just making rent — a distant dream for poor families, who are disproportionately people of color.
All this despite years of effort by school, law enforcement, city and county officials and a variety of nonprofit groups.
“None of this has changed,” said Kaleem Caire, a local educator who’s running One City Schools, a charter school to address the challenges that keep minority and low-income kids from succeeding in school. “The achievement rate has gotten worse. The failure rate of kids has gotten worse. We would keep thinking that we were solving the problem, the United Way and all of these organizations jump on it, but it doesn’t change a thing.”
The problem, some say, is that disparities impact a population that has little political or economic clout. And white people, who control the levers of commerce and government, address only pieces of an interconnected web of issues that include child development, education, economics and criminal justice.
Brandi Grayson co-founded Young, Gifted and Black and now runs Urban Triage, an organization that provides educational support, teaches parenting skills and promotes wellness to help black families become self-sufficient.
She said elimination of racial disparities would require a seismic shift in attitude throughout society, which would take years, maybe generations. In the meantime, she said, government has to enact policies that enforce equitable treatment of people in housing, health care, education, employment and criminal justice.
“In Dane County there have been no policy changes,” she said. “Just a lot of talk, a lot of meetings, a lot of conversation and a lot of money given to organizations that do community engagement or collect data. What’s the point of that investment if we already know what it is?”
She said initiatives consistently fail because society at large hasn’t called out the root cause of the disparities: racism.
If white people felt that the problem was worth solving, she said, they’d do something about it. For example, blacks are way more likely to experience infant mortality, low birth weight, early death, hypertension and a raft of other health conditions, much of that due to lack of access to health care.
“What we’re really saying is, ‘This is a public health crisis, but it’s not really worth the investment,’” she said.
Public concern over the vastness of disparities in the county ramped up in 2013 upon the release of the influential “Race to Equity” report from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
Erica Nelson, director of the Race to Equity Project, said she expects to release an update to the report this summer.
Nelson declined to talk about data gathered for the update, but said it would look at the impact of efforts so far, which are difficult to measure because of the complexity of the problem and the number of organizations and stakeholders involved.
“It’s not something you just wake up and figure how to do the next day,” she said. “This is all part of a process. Our hope is that when we do release an updated report that it can continue to guide folks’ thinking around these issues.”
Caire thinks that addressing childhood development and education is the first step in making transformational changes. After his plans for a charter school were rejected in 2011 by the Madison School Board, Caire won approval two years ago for another charter school, One City Early Learning Center, from the newly established University of Wisconsin-based Office of Educational Opportunity, which has the authority to override school board decisions.
The tuition-free school, which is geared toward low-income and minority kids, looks beyond the school, working with parents to make sure kids are getting what they need at home to succeed academically.
It’s cost-intensive work. Last year, he said, he had to raise $2.2 million for his 98 students and 26 preschoolers. That’s nearly $18,000 per student a year compared with $15,000 spent in MMSD schools and $12,500 statewide.
One City only goes through first grade, with plans to add a grade each year through sixth. It’s a model that Caire hopes could be a blueprint for the state. But first, he said, he has to make it affordable. He said that as the school grows, economies of scale should kick in. In the future, he said, he expects the costs to level out at $700,000 or $800,000 a year.
“Wisconsin needs a whole new model for its public school system for education,” he said. “They need to fund it differently, they need to provide more mental health support and things like that in the schools. They need the schools to be wired around what kids need for the future, and we don’t have that. We don’t have schools like that.”
It’s difficult to say whether the Madison Metropolitan School District has made progress in reducing disparities. Asked six weeks ago for assessment and disciplinary data broken down by race over 15 years, the district has not replied. And no district officials were made available for an interview.
But one thing is certain: As time passes, the disparities affect more of the student population. Since 1987, the proportion of black students in the district has doubled from 9% to 18%.
Disciplinary data released by the district shows that attempts to deal with racial issues have had mixed results at best. Five years ago, the district implemented its “behavior education plan,” a disciplinary framework to reduce disparities in out-of-school suspensions. But there’s been little progress. Fifty-seven percent of out-of-school suspensions during this year’s first semester were issued to black students. And teachers have complained that the plan has led to a chaotic school environment that ties the hands of staff dealing with misbehavior.
But there have been some successes.
The school district has implemented efforts to reduce the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, including a process for restorative justice and teen courts, which give students a chance to avoid the justice system. According to a Dane County “Disproportionate Minority Contact Solutions Report” last year, those efforts likely contributed to a decrease in the number of kids referred by schools to the county justice system. In 2014, school referrals made up 26% of total referrals for juvenile offenders in the county; in 2018 it was 17%.
Overall, there are fewer kids entering the juvenile justice system, but the disparities are widening.
According to the Dane County report, in 2009 black kids were arrested at a rate 4.71 times that of whites; by 2019, an arrest was 7.46 times more likely to happen to a black kid. And once in the juvenile justice system, social workers recommend formal judicial proceedings against black kids 65% of the time, compared with slightly less than 40% for white youth. Once in the Juvenile Detention Center, black kids average a 35% longer stay than white kids.
That translates into a population at the detention center that is 86% black, up from 73% in 2011.
Andre Johnson, youth justice manager for the Dane County Department of Human Services, which oversees the juvenile justice system, sees a silver lining.
Measures put in place over the years, like changing the approach police take with youthful offenders and the move toward restorative justice rather than taking a punitive approach, have helped reduce the numbers of kids entering the justice system across the board. Over a 20-year span, juvenile arrests dropped 69%.
“There are fewer arrests and more referrals for treatment,” Johnson said. “There’s more understanding around trauma and around adverse childhood experiences and what the best response would be to address the behavior that in the past we may have criminalized.”
But while arrests of white kids in Dane County dropped 63% between 2009 and 2018 — from 3,733 to 1,386 — the percentage for black kids dropped only 44% — from 2,299 to 1,281.
“That’s a drop of over 1,000 less black kids arrested,” Johnson said. “That’s a good thing.”
But there has also been an astonishing increase in the number of car thefts in Madison in recent years, nearly all of them by black kids.
Between 2016 and 2019, the number of kids referred for detention for car theft — including passengers — rose from 62 to 312.
“It’s crimes of opportunity where kids are finding keys, finding fobs, going into garages, getting keys, and then just joyriding,” said John Bauman, Dane County juvenile court administrator. “They’re not selling them. They’re not chopping them. They’re not doing anything besides going to ride around and maybe take another car then. It’s baffling.”
County officials and local nonprofits are hoping to reverse the trend with a new program that provides intensive mentoring for youthful offenders, which showed promise during a pilot program last year.
“It just feels like we’ve got a group of kids who are relying on each other for that support and making some pretty bad decisions along the way,” Bauman said. “Almost always, the number-one top thing that they say would help, would have helped and will help, is adults in their lives.”
The program, funded with $250,000 from the United Way and $100,000 from the county, would serve up to 49 kids, “which should really cover the bulk of our deeper end kids,” Bauman said.
Arrests of adults are dropping as well, but again, the rate of whites arrested is falling far faster than that of blacks.
“For people of color, you actually see aggregate numbers of arrests and citations declining,” interim Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl said. “So while as a whole the disparities remain, I think it’s good that those numbers are being reduced. And our crime rate has been consistent; that hasn’t gone down.”
While critics, including Grayson, have accused the department of over-policing minority neighborhoods, Wahl said most of the arrests his officers make result from calls from the public. And higher rates of stops and citations for black drivers may be due in part to higher rates of poverty and unemployment, which can make it hard to make car repairs or keep up with registration and license renewal fees.
In recent years, Wahl said, the department has mounted a number of efforts to reduce disparities and divert people from the criminal justice system. Officers have been trained in implicit bias and de-escalation. The department began a restorative justice process in each police district. Some surrounding jurisdictions have done the same.
And a recent initiative, funded with a $1.1 million federal grant, allows officers to divert people with addiction issues to treatment rather than locking them up. In addition, the department now allows youthful offenders between the ages of 12 and 16 to participate in a restorative justice program in lieu of a citation.
Former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, now a police consultant on racial bias, said disparities persist because no one’s ever defined specific goals to reduce them, then garnered the funding and support to see them through.
“I’m so frustrated with this topic because nobody will say this is where we need to go and this is what we need to do,” he said. “I think people are afraid to call it out and address it. We know what works. We’re just not willing to put forth the effort.”
Wray has been involved in several efforts to reduce disparities over the years, including serving as co-chair of a commission established by former Gov. Jim Doyle on reducing disparities in the criminal justice system. There are proven strategies for reducing disparities on several fronts, he said. For one, lining up resources to inmates — like alcohol and drug addiction treatment, jobs and housing — before they’re released would help ensure they don’t end up back in prison.
“We know that if you are really focused on re-entry, that you can reduce disparities in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Wray, who sits on the One City board, also sees the need for an approach that reaches beyond the criminal justice system.
“We know that when we invest in a human being up front, we provide them the resources, coaches, nutrition, reading to a child, we know this works,” he said.
But none of it works without sustainable funding, which has been elusive.
“It has to be a partnership between government, the business community and the philanthropic community,” said Michael Johnson, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. “And we have to find the right funding mix to be able to invest in it.”
Johnson has spent years trying to organize a concerted effort to address root causes of racial disparities.
“It becomes exhausting,” he said. “You go to these town hall meetings, you go on these panels, you talk about it. Then people do these studies. I refuse to participate in any of them anymore.”
In 2017, Johnson and the Focused Interruption Coalition, a community and faith-based group that tries to mitigate the fallout from gun violence, put together a 15-point plan. It called for violence prevention measures, along with initiatives for mental health services, parental resources, court advocacy, youth employment and other measures to level the playing field for struggling minority families.
It was the culmination of 18 months of work with elected city officials, school officials, pastors, former inmates, victims, mothers who had lost children to violence and town hall meetings. The plan gained broad City Council support.
“They voted on it unanimously,” Johnson said. “But when the rubber hit the road, me and (then-Mayor Paul) Soglin, we fought publicly over this. It was about a $5 million plan just to implement those 15 points — and they funded one.”
That one item was a peer support initiative, for which the council allotted $400,000, $75,000 of which Soglin stripped out to fund a rapid response team amid a spate of gun violence.
Two years earlier, the Rev. Alex Gee and his Justified Anger coalition put together a broad plan to address disparities in key areas like education, incarceration, family wellness and economic development.
Gee declined comment on the progress. But Johnson said, “He never got systemic funding to be able to support that plan.”
“I think there have been attempts by several leaders in this community,” he said, “and in theory people talk about it. But when it comes to funding those ideas, it just doesn’t happen, for whatever reason.”
Johnson said government needs to have a sustainable funding process, which is being done in other communities. Seattle, for instance, is about a decade into a united effort to address disparities. And last year, the city council there won a $40 million federal grant to bolster racial equity programs in public schools.
Madison, he said, needs to think on such a scale. For a plan to create lasting change, it would require stable programing and funding streams that currently don’t exist. Families would have to be stabilized even before the birth of a child. Schools would need more social workers and mental health professionals. More money would be needed for family health care, alcohol and drug treatment and job training.
“Just like the mayor just created this wheel tax to generate revenue for the transit system, we’ve got to do the same thing for kids who are the most marginalized in our community,” Johnson said, “and be able to fund proven strategies that are going to help move the needle.”
In January, Caire, on the website medium.com, posted a reading list of articles spanning decades. A 1976 headline in the Wisconsin State Journal, “Black Student Performance Still Low,” struck a recurring chord over the following decades.
“Our city has turned a blind eye because it didn’t want to confront the sensitive issue that it had, that we had a problem with race,” he said. “But now we’re living on top of three generations of neglect. I want people to have a perspective on what’s really going on and inform them that this thing’s crazy.”
It’s gotten to the point, he said, that he’s working to build a new school with a training facility so he can have a teaching staff that looks like the kids they teach, because he can’t recruit any from out of state.
“You type in ‘being black in Madison,’ you try it,” he said. “Trying to get people here, they’re saying, ‘Man, I’m gonna come there and my children are going to have to deal with this? My people are going to have to deal with that? I’m gonna have to have traffic stops? I mean, why would I do that to myself?’”
He’s critical of state, city and local officials for not dealing with disparities in a meaningful way, despite the cost of doing nothing, which includes urban flight and the increased costs of public assistance and incarceration.
“The struggle of the unintended consequences of the legacy and years of inaction that have left these things untended to are now eating at us from the bottom up from our kids not succeeding,” he said.
And state, city and local officials, he said, are sweeping it all under the rug.
“What I really want to do is, I want to sue the shit out of the state, the city and the Madison School District all together, basically on the fact that they haven’t provided for the needs of these children,” he said. “Make it a big public spectacle and make them have to come public.”
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