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November 18, 2005 - The Capital Times (WI)

Black Inmate Population At Issue

Why Is State's Incarceration Rate Highest in Nation?

By Anita Weier

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Two state legislators want the governor to create a task force to examine why African-Americans are imprisoned at a higher rate in Wisconsin than in any other state, including the states of the Deep South.

Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, and Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, are circulating a memo asking their colleagues to join in a written request to Gov. Jim Doyle.

Black said the idea came up after the Black Commentator published a story in July listing Wisconsin as the worst state to be in for African-Americans.

John Odom, a longtime Madison civil rights activist, brought the article to Black's attention.

The online magazine of commentary found that Wisconsin led the nation in the percentage of African-American residents in prison, at 4.06 percent, compared with 0.35 percent of whites.

Iowa was next with 3.30 percent of African-Americans incarcerated, followed by Texas with 3.29 percent and Oklahoma with 2.98 percent. The remainder of the top 10 ranged from 2.85 percent to 2.75 percent.

African-American residents of Wisconsin were incarcerated at a rate 11.6 times higher than whites, according to the Commentator.

"Tamara and I would like the task force to look at what causes the extremely high incarceration rate, and whether everybody is treated the same when it comes to race in regard to arrest and conviction," Black said.

"It is a question of fairness and justice, and a significant concern to the African-American community. We would also like to learn what we can do about it - in education, social services, policing and the criminal justice system."

Grigsby said the article in the Commentator provided a prime opportunity to ask state officials to recognize the issue as a problem and a priority.

"I hope we can get some answers to why some of these things are happening, and some solid recommendations for legislative options that may help to address the problem," she said.

Dan Leistikow, a spokesman for Gov. Jim Doyle, said Doyle will consider their request.

"This is something the governor has been deeply concerned about since his days as attorney general. He has launched significant reforms of the corrections system, including a new focus on prevention and treatment," Leistikow said.

Odom said that though high prison rates for blacks had been known for a while, the Commentator article made it clear that Wisconsin was the worst. He said he appreciated Black's responsiveness when he raised the issue.

"My concern was that there is no reason why our progressive state should have such a dubious designation," Odom said. "My feeling was that a blue ribbon task force or at least legislative hearings could bring together the brightest people who have experience and knowledge who could give us new ideas to bring improvement in helping young people get their education and find gainful employment. Their career path doesn't have to include prison."

Odom said the issue is two-sided: Young African-Americans have to be represented adequately in the criminal justice system, but lots of work also has to be done on education and strong family structures.

The UW-Madison's Center on Wisconsin Strategy "State of Working Wisconsin Update" in 2004 identified "a shocking series of indicators where Wisconsin posts shocking levels of racial disparity, often among the worst in the nation" in areas including poverty, unemployment, education and incarceration."

The COWS update for 2005 found that African-American unemployment rates in Wisconsin in 2004 were 16.4 percent, compared with 4.2 percent for whites.

Pamela Oliver, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has already studied the prison issue extensively.

She found that black prison admission rates rose steadily in Wisconsin through the 1990s, while white incarceration rates rose modestly.

"A major source of the rise is increased probation and parole revocations, which rose for both races but more rapidly for blacks," Oliver said on a Web site citing research findings.

"By the late 1990s, most black new prison sentences were for drug offenses. Black sentences for drug offenses rose in the 1990s while sentences for serious crimes declined."

Black said he would like to find out why Minnesota has a dramatically lower incarceration rate.

"The point is that our current situation is not acceptable," he said. "A task force can focus attention on the issue, bring in experts and take a serious factual look at the situation, and develop the political resolve to do something about it."

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