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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz

Wisconsin leads nation in black male incarceration.

A dubious national title: Number one in locking up black men


It turns out Wisconsin is a national leader in one particular area.

We lock up more black men than anywhere else.

No, I don't imagine the local Chamber of Commerce will be touting it with a "We're Number One!" campaign.

According to a recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute released last week, Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration of African-American men in the nation, significantly higher than the next leading state.

Wisconsin's black male incarceration rate is 12.8 percent, well above the 9.7 percent in Oklahoma, which ranks number two.

It's a dubious statistic that has been reported in the past although Wisconsin never ended up in the top spot until recently.

Again, nothing to be proud about for local residents or officials.

Some readers make a natural assumption that high black male incarceration rates in states like Wisconsin with a relatively small African-American population means that black males commit more crimes than any other group. But that theory has been belied by research that suggest other factors at work.

For Wisconsin, many of the black men in prison have been convicted for non-violent drug offenses that come with strict sentencing requirements for anyone facing a prison term after a first offense.

State Rep. Fred Kessler, a former Milwaukee County judge, said that Wisconsin's decision about 10 years ago to lower the age of who can be charged as an adult for a crime also had impact on the state's black male incarceration rate.

Kessler, who oversaw many criminal cases, said that when the age for adult crime was lowered from 18 to 17 years old, it meant some young black males were introduced into the criminal justice system under serious circumstances.

"When they lowered the sentencing age, it put a lot of black men into the system before they were ready," said Kessler. "After a first offense, it makes any other trouble they get into seem a lot more serious."

Several national organizations that deal with criminal justice issues have long identified Wisconsin's black male incarceration rate as a curious by-product of policies and procedures that somehow make it more likely for a black man to get sentenced behind bars in the Dairyland State than other places.

These groups have always fought for the kind of alternative sentencing that could greatly reduce the black male incarceration rate but are usually opposed by a "get tough on crime" mentality that scares politicians into submission.

Some of the most disturbing information in the UWM study was the information that more than half of black males in their thirties in Milwaukee have been incarcerated as well as half of Milwaukee black males in their forties.

Some people have criticized findings by other UWM-based studies on urban affairs in previous years for being overblown in terms of describing the black male unemployment problem in Milwaukee. The rate of black male incarceration study will likely be just as controversial for some who refuse to accept such staggering numbers exist in most parts of the African-American community.

Regardless of whether it's an accurate reflection or not, the state should be concerned about finding ways to lose this particular national title.

Nobody wants to be number one in locking up black men if they can find a way to avoid it.

Talkbacks

AndrewJ | April 24, 2013 at 11:50 a.m. (report)

So, the implication here is that laws are only being enforced on African American men? So I'm completely free to start up my brothel that also doubles as a heroin and automatic weapon distribution center? Who knew. If you find yourself in jail, whether you were "ready" for jail or not, here is some simple legal advice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbOtyWTRZ_g

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sherm174 | April 23, 2013 at 7:53 p.m. (report)

Come on Eugene. Seriously? Your article's title implies Wisconsin is just locking people up based on the color of their skin. But then you write about, "non-violent drug offenses that come with strict sentencing requirements for anyone facing a prison term after a first offense." So what, should we just ignore those offenses? Or how about you make the strict sentence come after the 2nd or 3rd offense...still not enough? How many then? Why don't you focus on doing something positive for your community for once. You do more to set back race relations in Milwaukee than just about anyone.

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TheyThink | April 22, 2013 at 4:00 p.m. (report)

Clearly the solution is to incarcerate more white people to balance it out.

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Photodavie | April 22, 2013 at 1:40 p.m. (report)

"When they lowered the sentencing age, it put a lot of black men into the system before they were ready," said Kessler. I'm sorry, what is the age that a person is "ready" for jail? This one is simple, do the crime, do the time.

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