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Issue of the Week: Wisconsin’s Shocking Incarceration Rate

Apr. 23, 2013
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More than half of Milwaukee County’s African-American men in their 30s and half of those in their early 40s have served time in state prison, according to a new report by John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn at UW-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute.

Wisconsin’s black male incarceration rate is the highest in the country and roughly double the national average, yet the state’s white male incarceration rate is 1.2%, about the national average.

Between 1990 and 2011, 26,222 African-American men from the county were incarcerated in state facilities; as of January 2012, more than 20,500 of them were released back into the community, while 5,631 were still in prison.

Roughly a third of the African-American men serving time since 1990 are nonviolent offenders.

Wisconsin’s nation-leading incarceration rate is especially problematic in central Milwaukee, where, in the 53206 Zip code, multiple ex-offenders live on nearly every residential block in the neighborhood. That leads to further family destabilization, poverty and, potentially, increased crime.

Not surprisingly, Wisconsin’s African-American incarceration rate spiked in the 1990s, when so-called tough-on-crime and truth-in-sentencing laws were passed, hitting those with drug convictions—including those convicted of nonviolent offenses—the hardest.

That has a huge effect on state resources. In early 2012, the UWM report found, Wisconsin was spending about a half-million dollars a day to incarcerate Milwaukee County’s black men. And the state’s corrections budget has ballooned to more than $1 billion annually.

Couldn’t that money be spent more productively?

Pawasarat and Quinn note that Wisconsin’s work-training programs largely ignore those with convictions, even though black men and ex-offenders are the most in need of vocational support in Wisconsin’s sluggish economy. Adding another barrier to an ex-offender’s job search is the lack of a valid driver’s license, often a requirement for employment.

State and local leaders and community groups have been calling for change in Wisconsin’s incarceration model.

Most notably, MICAH/WISDOM has launched the 11 x 15 Campaign for Justice, which seeks to cut Wisconsin’s prison population in half. Members testified at the state budget hearing in Greendale for increased funding for alternatives to incarceration, including more support for treatment programs instead of simply locking up those with drug offenses or mental illness who won’t be rehabilitated in prison.

Pawasarat and Quinn also call for more job training and driver’s education programs for Milwaukee’s African-American teens so that they will have a brighter future than the generation that has experienced mass incarceration.

Milwaukee will never become a world-class city if we ignore the realities of our most impoverished neighborhoods. Yes, violent criminals should have to pay for their crimes. But those with nonviolent convictions who truly want to turn their lives around should be given a fair chance to do so. State and local leaders must work to reduce the nation-leading mass incarceration rates of Milwaukee’s African-American men by supporting ex-offenders who are returning to the community as well as providing opportunities for Milwaukee’s African-American teens.


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