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September 26, 2007 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)

WI: Drug Sentences Worse For Blacks

Hispanics, Too, Sent To Prison More Than Whites, Study Finds

By David Doege

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

African-Americans and Hispanics convicted of drug trafficking in Wisconsin are more likely to wind up in prison than white drug dealers, according to a report on race and sentencing by the state Sentencing Commission.

Compared with whites, Hispanics are 2 1/2 times as likely to be imprisoned, while blacks are nearly twice as likely to end up behind bars for dealing drugs, according to the report issued last month.

The amount of racial disparity found in sentences increased as the offense severity decreased. Less severe crimes, such as drug trafficking, robbery, burglary and third-degree sexual assault, showed greater levels of prison/probation racial disparity than more severe offenses such as armed robbery, sexual assault of a child and first- and second-degree sexual assault.

"Racial disparities do exist within Wisconsin's sentencing system," the report concludes. "Yet the true causes of these disparities are often difficult to identify and measure."

Poor sentencing data collection, coupled with the complex mix of legitimate sentencing factors considered by judges, makes it challenging to accurately discern the effect race plays in sentencing compared with other factors, the commission concluded.

Two legislators serving on the commission disagreed over how the report should be interpreted and used.

State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), a member of the commission, complained that the report's message was too muted.

"These disparities exist," Taylor told a reporter. "I think the commission should have come out and said that more as a matter of fact, more forcefully.

"They exist. Now, what are we going to do about it?"

But state Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), another commission member, said the report was inconclusive.

"At best, what the study found is that there could be a further look at disparity," Lazich said. "Clearly, you can't arrive at a conclusion.

"There just really isn't enough information from that study to convince me that we are seeing racial discrimination in sentencing."

Gov. Jim Doyle has reviewed the report and expects that the questions raised by it will be addressed by the recently created Commission on Reducing Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System, according to Carla Vigue, spokeswoman for Doyle.

The 21-member Sentencing Commission was formed in 2003 to study sentencing patterns statewide and establish guidelines to help judges determine how long prison terms should be under truth-in-sentencing. Among other things, the legislation establishing the commission required it to study and report on "whether race is a basis for imposing sentences in criminal cases."

The commission approved the final draft of the 148-page report last month. Data from 14,550 cases was examined for five crimes: sexual assault of a child; sexual assault; robbery/armed robbery; burglary; and drug trafficking.

The analysis of drug trafficking sentences focused on seven felony classifications for peddling cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, LSD and marijuana.

In all seven classifications, a higher percentage of black offenders received prison sentences than white offenders, according to the report.

In Class C offenses, for example, 79% of the blacks and 78% of the Hispanics received prison terms, compared with 62% of the whites. Examples of Class C drug offenses include selling 40 or more grams of cocaine or 50 or more grams of heroin.

In Class E offenses, 66% of Hispanics and 61% of blacks were imprisoned, compared with 30% of the whites sentenced. Class E drug offenses include selling 10,000 or more grams of marijuana, 3 to 10 grams of heroin or 5 to 15 grams of cocaine.

"There are so many factors that go into sentences that I hope this doesn't create a perception that it's all about white vs. black," said Douglas County District Attorney Daniel Blank, a commission member. "On the other hand, there was an awful lot of research that went into this, so I think that it should be an eye-opener for the criminal justice system.

"We may need to ask ourselves whether we have a mind-set." Few options in Milwaukee

The data also showed that drug traffickers from Milwaukee - regardless of race - were more likely to go to prison than those convicted of the crime elsewhere in the state.

Commission member Michael Tobin, director of the trial division in the state Public Defender's Office, noted in a letter made as an addendum to the report that Milwaukee does not offer treatment options in its three drug trafficking courts, as do other jurisdictions.

One of the report's recommendations "especially in drug cases" is establishment of treatment-oriented courts. The report also recommends a review of the penalty scheme for drug trafficking.

"Wisconsin should study whether a race-neutral application of its current drug policies results in a higher proportion of minorities in prison, due to a correlation between drug preferences and race," the report says.

The full report, Race & Sentencing In Wisconsin: Sentence and Offender Characteristics Across Five Criminal Offense Areas, is at: ).pdf)

Key Findings

Racial disparity in sentences increased as the offense severity decreased.

In more serious Class C drug offenses, 79% of the blacks and 78% of the Hispanics received prison terms, compared with 62% of the whites.

In less serious Class E drug offenses, 66% of Hispanics and 61% of blacks were imprisoned, compared with 30% of the whites sentenced.

Among non-drug offenses, Hispanic offenders were 1.7 times as likely as whites to receive a prison sentence, while blacks were 1.5 times as likely as whites to go to prison.

Among all offenses examined, compared with whites, black offenders were 1.7 times as likely to receive a prison sentence, while Hispanic offenders were almost twice as likely to go to prison.

Men were almost 3 times as likely as women to receive a prison sentence.

Source: Wisconsin Sentencing Commission

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