When she speaks to groups about the legal gulf separating whites from blacks in Dane County, Celia Jackson likes to pull a bleach-stained T-shirt over her tailored business suit.
"We have a stain in this community," she says. "We need to own it."
It's a simple but effective prop, illustrating the incongruity of a county that likes to consider itself enlightened on matters of social justice locking up young black men at a rate beyond almost any other place in the country.
"If you are black, your son has a 50 percent chance of being incarcerated in this community," said Jackson, a former head of the state Department of Regulation and Licensing who, until recently, led an effort to combat the problem in response to a 2009 task force.
That task force found that at any given time, nearly half of the county's black men between 24 and 29 are in prison, jail or under some form of state supervision. By comparison, about 3 percent of white men in that same age group are under some type of state correctional control.
How did things go awry?
Experts say the causes of racial disparity in the justice system — in Dane County and elsewhere — are complex. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based group, The Sentencing Project, has studied the imbalance on a national level since the 1970s. He cites the following factors:
• Socioeconomic disadvantages, such as poverty and unemployment, that lead more minorities to engage in criminal behavior
• Enforcement, prosecution and sentencing policies that more heavily target minority communities
• Limited options for diversion from jail or prison
• Biased decision-making among police, prosecutors, judges and others in the criminal justice system.
"We can debate the relative contribution of each of these factors," Mauer said, "but there are few who would dispute that each plays at least some role."
The Rev. John Mix, chaplain at the Dane County Jail, believes there are two main reasons blacks commit more crimes, proportionally, than whites. The first is lack of education. The Madison School District graduates just 48 percent of its black students in four years, for example, compared to 87 percent of whites.
And then there is what Mix calls the "unresolved grief" in many offenders.
"There is so much loss, so much abuse, so much violence that never got addressed and dealt with," Mix said.
Drugs drive the train
One of the major drivers of the disparate treatment of blacks and whites nationally is the uneven enforcement of drug laws. In his book, "Race to Incarcerate," Mauer found that between 1985 and 1995, the number of white inmates in state prisons for drug crimes shot up 300 percent, while the number of blacks imprisoned for drug crimes exploded by 700 percent.
Policies that treat one pound of powder cocaine the same as 5 grams of crack — roughly the weight of two pennies — has led to even longer sentences for blacks, who are much more likely to sell crack than powder cocaine, he said. The federal government recently enacted new federal sentencing guidelines that significantly close the gap between the two drugs and eliminates a mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack.
White defendants are also more likely than blacks to be able to afford drug treatment as an alternative to jail time, Mauer said.
"Is it race? Is it class? Is it resources?" he asked. "How do we level the playing field?"
In comparatively well-off and safe Dane County, there are elements woven into the fabric of life here that may contribute to the disparity.
"I think what many African-Americans will tell you who come here from Chicago is we enforce a lot of petty laws that they don't enforce down there," said Dane County Circuit Judge Sarah O'Brien. "I would argue that's a good thing. The reason they came here is for safer communities and better schools."
But that can develop into an us-versus-them attitude, particularly when it comes to people of color from Chicago or Milwaukee, which leads to more police scrutiny of minority communities.
"There is a sense that the majority population be protected from this ‘alien' culture, and the elected officials tend to respond to that concern," said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, a former career prosecutor who is now a United Church of Christ minister.
Former Dane County Circuit Judge James Martin said he retired in 2009 in part because of his frustration over the problem.
He cited a 2006 hazing incident among members of the UW-Madison marching band that included young women being forced to kiss other women, and male upperclassmen forcing freshman women to drink alcohol. The scandal was handled as a school disciplinary matter rather than a crime.
"If that had happened on Allied Drive," Martin said, naming one of Madison's poorest neighborhoods, "you'd have criminal charges."
Police: We go where crime is
At times during his 28 years with the Madison Police Department, Noble Wray has shared Martin's view.
Wray, who is black, said racism certainly plays a role in the disparate treatment of blacks. But he also sees a more complicated set of dynamics in play, including a lack of economic opportunity and education among minorities, discretion by officials about whether to charge or arrest someone, and — significantly — political pressure to be tough on crime.
In the seven years he's been chief of the department, Wray has tried a variety of strategies. He has built a workforce that is nearly 20 percent employees of color. All officers are required to take anti-bias training. And some are stationed in troubled neighborhoods to build rapport with residents.
Yet, the efforts have failed to budge a longstanding statistic: About half of the people arrested by Madison police each year are black, even though blacks make up just 8 percent of the city's residents.
With the city's low crime rate, residents demand action when violent or property crime goes up. That can lead to extra policing and more arrests in low-income neighborhoods, which can impact minorities more heavily.
"If there's a neighborhood or there's a side of town with people saying, ‘You've got to do something about it (crime),' that's where you put your resources," Wray said. "We've got to be there — it's a public safety issue. Our charge is to deal with racial disparities without compromising public safety."