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December 1, 2004 - The Wisconsin State Journal (WI)

Social Justice Awareness Week:

Racial Divide Marks Drug Prosecutions

By Aaron Nathans

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Tough drug laws have pushed disproportionately large numbers of black Americans into the prison system in Wisconsin and around the nation, civil rights advocates told UW-Madison students.

They spoke Tuesday night as part of Social Justice Awareness Week, which continues tonight with a panel discussion about abortion, followed by interracial relations night on Thursday. The events are from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Pyle Center.

The nation incarcerates blacks at seven times the rate of whites, said Pam Oliver, a University of Wisconsin sociology professor.

Nearly 40 percent of the nation's black male population is under the supervision of the correctional system, whether that means prison, local jails, parole or probation, she said.

"Our African-American population is incarcerated at almost astronomical rates," she said.

Oliver said this perpetuates a cycle of poverty. A parent who is in jail is unable to provide for his or her family, she said.

In the 1930s, despite whatever racial problems existed in the country, the imprisonment rates were not nearly as skewed, she said. The shift started in the late 1970s, and picked up in the early 1980s as the drug war began, she said.

In 2001, Wisconsin had the nation's highest black incarceration rate, she noted. The state's black incarceration rate also rose in the mid-1980s, she said. The state's truth in sentencing law is extending prison terms by an average of four years, she said.

Wisconsin blacks are most likely to be locked up on drug charges, while whites largely go to prison for violent crime, she said.

Those blacks who are arrested in Wisconsin tend to be young, often 18 or 19 years old, and are sent to prison on the charge of possession with intent to deliver, she said.

"I don't believe it's usage patterns," she said. "It's people charged with being low-level dealers. If you want to get into the debate about incarceration, you have to talk about the drug war."

Whites are more likely to use and sell drugs, but blacks are much more likely to be arrested, she said.

"What's shifted is how we respond to crime," she said.

African-Americans are still stopped in traffic more routinely than whites, said Barbara Rowe, who is on the Wisconsin Task Force on Money, Education and Prisons. Oliver is chairwoman of that task force.

Dane County suffers from an "institutional racism" that discourages black professors from moving to Madison with their children, Rowe said.

District Attorney Brian Blanchard, who was on the panel, said the numbers look "horrifying."

Americans need to address the issues of white privilege, and the racial differences in usage of the two forms of cocaine, crack and powder, he said.

"Unless we own up to those issues, then the numbers just keep getting worse," Blanchard said.

Social Justice Week will conclude with a "social justice social" from 8 p.m. to midnight Friday in the Memorial Union's Rathskeller.

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