In recent years, racial disparities within the criminal justice system have garnered significant attention by public officials and the media. Both Dane County and the state of Wisconsin have been ranked nationally as places where African-American men can most expect to be thrown into the criminal justice system at rates far exceeding those of whites. This phenomenon isn't new. Racial disparities within the criminal justice system have been longstanding, but harsher laws and new sentencing rules are making it more difficult for offenders to get out of the system once they are in it.

Traffic stops disproportionately affect blacks

In 1996, The Capital Times conducted a computer-assisted analysis of more than 25,000 traffic stops over a 20-month period from 1994 to 1995 that found that African-Americans comprised 13 percent of those ticketed by Madison police, while making up only 4 percent of the population. Two years later the findings factored into then-Mayor Sue Bauman’s creation of a Task Force on Race Relations, which criticized the Madison Police Department’s handling of racial issues. While the department officially denied racial profiling, in 2001, then-Police Chief Richard Williams instructed officers to begin tracking the age, gender and race of drivers they pull over.

In 2002 an analysis of those records showed that 14 percent of those pulled over were African-Americans, who comprised 7 percent of the local population. Observers attributed those figures to two reasons: Police weighted their patrol toward high crime areas of the city, which were predominantly inhabited by African-Americans; and African-Americans were more likely to be pulled over for equipment violations because they were more likely, because of their socioeconomic status, to drive cars in need of repair.

In the intervening years, African-Americans continued to be pulled over at vastly higher rates than whites. In 2012, according to the Police Department’s annual report, African-Americans, who made up 7 percent of the population, comprised 21 percent of those pulled over, while whites made up 67 percent.  

National reports of black drivers being pulled over for simply "Driving While Black," have been numerous. One local pastor, Rev. Alex Gee of Fountain of Life Covenant Church, described such an incident in his Cap Times' cover story, "Justified Anger," in Dec. 2013, about how Madison is failing its black community. 

Disparities in incarceration rates

Profound racial disparities in arrests and incarceration have also been well-documented. In 2007, a report from the Justice Policy Institute ranked Dane County third in the nation for the highest race gap for locking up drug offenders, with African-Americans 97 times more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than whites. That same year the National Council on Crime and Delinquency released a study that found that African-American juvenile offenders were nearly 20 times more likely to be locked up than whites, more than twice the national average.

A study by UW professor Pam Oliver found that in 1996, 10 percent of African-American men age 18 to 54 were in prison, compared with 0.46 percent of white men in the same age range. Young African-American men fared the worst. About 15 percent of African-American men ages 25 to 29 were in prison, and another 32 percent were under Department of Corrections supervision, for a total of 47 percent of the demographic that was enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

The disparities have been a statewide issue. Amid reports that 45 percent of inmates in state prisons were African-American, while comprising only 6 percent of the state’s population, in 2008 former Gov. Jim Doyle commissioned a panel on racial disparities, which called on local governments to address the problem.

Dane County sought to tackle the problem by forming its own Task Force on Racial Disparities, which in 2009 released 80 recommendations. Some — including a court diversion unit, a driver’s license recovery program and settling more juvenile offender cases with non-court resolutions — have been implemented.

But the state retains the dubious distinction of being a leader in locking up African-American men. In 2013 the Employment and Training Institute at UW-Milwaukee released a study showing that Wisconsin leads the nation in locking up black men by a wide margin. Using 2010 U.S. Census data, researchers found that 12.8 percent of Wisconsin’s African-American men were behind bars in state prisons or local jails, far exceeding No. 2-ranked Oklahoma, which had 9.7 percent of its African-American men behind bars.

Also in 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report that found that Wisconsin ranked fifth in racial disparities for marijuana arrests. The report showed that despite similar rates of usage, African-Americans in Wisconsin were six times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, compared to the national average of 3.7 times more likely to be arrested. The findings prompted the ACLU to call on the state to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, an unlikely prospect given efforts in the Republican-controlled Legislature to stiffen marijuana laws.

Racial disparities across the board have garnered renewed attention in the wake of the November 2013, Race to Equity report, which showed vast racial disparities in nearly every quality of life indicator. While community leaders and elected officials are still weighing the report’s findings, the county has funded a pilot program to create a neighborhood community court, which would allow minor offenders age 17 to 25 a chance to avoid the criminal justice system.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.