A study released a few days ago by researchers at the Employment and Training Institute at the UW-Milwaukee shows that Wisconsin, long known to be among the worst in racial disparities in the criminal justice system, is in fact the worst — by a long shot.
Using 2010 census data, the study shows that 12.8 percent of the state's African-American men are now behind bars in state prison or local jails, twice the national average of 6.7 percent.
Wisconsin's rate far exceeds the 9.7-percent incarceration rate for African-American men in Oklahoma, which comes in at No. 2 on the list. (It's interesting to note that at 2.1 percent, Oklahoma also has the highest rate of incarcerating white men.)
According to the report, one in eight black men in Wisconsin is now behind bars — a staggering statistic, especially given that the rate for white men is 1.24 percent, or 1 in 81 men — almost identical to the national average.
The report shows that Wisconsin also leads the nation in the rate of locking up Native American men, 7.6 percent, just ahead of South Dakota, where 7.3 percent of Native American men are behind bars.
"They are shocking," Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project said of the findings during an NPR interview Thursday. "You know, as high as the national numbers are, the fact that Wisconsin leads the nation, is so much higher than other states, certainly causes us to be concerned."
State Sen. Lena Taylor also participated in the interview. Taylor, an attorney, represents the Milwaukee ZIP code 53206, which is considered ground zero for incarcerated black males, an area where 3,837 black men are either currently serving time or have in the past.
"You see the disparities that exist throughout the system, whether it starts at policing all the way through resources, prosecution, defense availability, sentencing, through the judges," she said. "You've seen the disparities that exist across the board."
So how did Wisconsin gain this dubious distinction? The UW-Milwaukee report report cites a number of factors: the inability of black men convicted of crimes to obtain driver's licenses, to find work, and to avoid being re-arrested for probation violations.
And of course there's the war on drugs, which disproportionately has hit minority communities:
"The incarceration levels in the 2003-2008 period are nearly four times those seen in 1990 before drug law changes, truth-in-sentencing, mandatory sentences, and three-strikes laws were broadly imposed. Even with a recent decline in incarceration levels, in 2010 Wisconsin still showed the highest incarceration rate for African-Americans in the U.S.," the report says.
It focuses heavily on Milwaukee County, where two-thirds of the incarcerated men come from six poverty-stricken ZIP code neighborhoods.
"The volume of black males of prime working age imprisoned has increased to such an extent that over half of all African-American men from Milwaukee County in their 30s and half of men in their early 40s have been or currently are in adult DOC correctional institutions," the report says.
It doesn't mention Dane County, which in the past had been cited as the county with the highest criminal disparities in the nation.
I've written about that in the past. In a 2009 story, University of Wisconsin sociology professor Pam Oliver, who studies racial disparities in the criminal justice system, offered her take on the source of the problem.
In many states where the percentage of blacks is small — in Wisconsin it's 6.5 percent — and the white population is relatively affluent, blacks don't have much of a political voice, she said. And in states where blacks make up a larger share of the population — like Alabama or Mississippi — they do have more political power, she said, and those states couldn't lock them up at the same rate anyway, given their larger numbers. (In Alabama the incarceration rate for black men is 5.4 percent; in Mississippi it's 5.2 percent.)
"You can only afford to have these mass incarcerations of African-Americans if they're a pretty small part of the population," Oliver said.