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Why Are So Many Black Men in Wisconsin Behind Bars?

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The news that Wisconsin has the highest rate in the country of incarceration among African-American men continues to reverberate and many are asking why.

UW-Milwaukee researcher Lois Quinn says the reasons stem from everything from a generally young black population to a poor economic situation, to harsh drug laws and policies.

Quinn found statewide 49 percent of African-American men in their 30s have already spent time in prison.

It's an issue affecting black men across the state, but is especially acute in Milwaukee.

"There's was nothing more devastating to me than the discovery that over half of young African American men in Milwaukee County have already served time in state prison," she says. "This was just staggering to me."

A senior scientist in the Employment and Training Institute at UWM's School of Continuing Education, Quinn brought these figures to light as co-author with John Pawasarat of the report, Wisconsin's Mass Incarceration of African American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013.

Quinn says the rates of black males in prison are high across the country because of a focused "war on drugs," new prisons being built with federal dollars, mandatory minimum sentences and drug crimes being punished with prison over treatment.

But Wisconsin's and Milwaukee's "amazingly disturbing" numbers of black men in prison are outliers well above any other state in the union. The next highest rate belongs to Oklahoma, a full six percentage points below Wisconsin's.

The question is: Why?

Young men targeted

Quinn says Milwaukee has the third youngest African-American population among the country's 50 largest metro areas, which she says is a contributing factor to the state's high rate of black male incarceration.

Many African-Americans didn't migrate to Milwaukee until WWII, when jobs in factories were available. As a result, the city has developed only a small black middle class, which has attracted fewer older members to the community over the years.

"When the drug war started, the target group was always the young and boy, did we have them," Quinn says. "Add to that intense racial segregation in Milwaukee, limited job opportunities when manufacturing slowed down, and you have a very toxic combination."

Among black men from Milwaukee in prison since 1990, 40 percent were drug offenders, the report says. But Quinn says it isn't just a matter of these men having committed crimes; it's how they are being prosecuted and their sentences carried out. For instance, the report indicates that drug crimes soared from 2002 to 2005, during which time black men were more than 10 times as likely to be imprisoned than white men.

Policing and policy

Contributing to the high rate of black men in prison, Quinn says Wisconsin - Milwaukee, in particular - has very effective police forces and a legislature that's "very aggressive" about mandatory prison sentences.

"Our image of a drug sale and stop-and-frisk is you see action going on on the corner and the police swoop in and arrest the drug dealer, but that's not how almost all of the arrests are made in Milwaukee," Quinn says.

Rather she says the police might stop a car for something unrelated to drugs, such as a busted tail light or rolling through a stop sign. Then the police search for drugs and weapons.

"The stop wasn't triggered by a crime; the crime was created in effect once the search took place in the car," Quinn says.

She also cites the Milwaukee Police Department as stopping 500 cars a day in the city.

"That's the net that we're casting on the poorest populations, granted their in the most dangerous neighborhoods," she says, acknowledging law enforcement is needed in these areas.

"Yes, we have to make the central city safe...but we won't make (children) safe if the only thing we do is lock up their parents and everybody else who violates the law," she says. "We have to get a lot more concerned about joblessness, about poverty...and less willing to say, 'I'll go to the state legislature and in two more weeks, they will give me one more law where people will be sent to prison.'

Quinn says there are examples of other states that pursue different policies and keep their incarceration rates lower, such as Minnesota. That state has adopted drug treatment options over incarceration as "a first response" to drug crimes.

"They got a very similar population proportionately, but they've got very different outcomes and I think that's a state we have to seriously look at as an alternative," Quinn says.

Revoking the poor's licenses

An interesting factor driving up the incarceration rate of its black men is Milwaukee's aggressive approach to suspending and revoking driver's licenses for not paying fines, Quinn says - an offense she calls "driving while poor."

Milwaukee, she says, takes away more driver's licenses than any other municipal body. And it's often for what Quinn calls "unfair" policies, such as charging poor people to park on their own street and suspending their licenses when they can't pay.

Plus, Milwaukee doesn't offer a community service option to pay off fines for offenses such as speeding tickets or overnight parking violations.

"So we've created this situation where the majority of African-Americans do not have valid driver's licenses, so they become easy targets for police stops," she says, "because as soon as that car is stopped, the person in it most likely does not have a valid license, and then their troubles with the law recycle again."

Quinn says she even knows of cases in which the city has ticketed families waiting to sign up for food stamps at the welfare department office, because their meter has expired.

"We want to continue doing the practices that worked in some middle class world of the past, where when people did something wrong, they paid the money and then it went away," she says. "Now we want to inflict that on people who don't have the money to pay. We've created this very troubling criminal justice system."

These situations often catch up with men who have previously been imprisoned for crimes - one-third of which are non-violent. If they are poor, they usually will have pleaded out for past crimes in court. They may get a reduced sentence, but they will also get supervision after they get out of prison.

That's problematic, she says, because a man who has gone to prison is unlikely to get a job.

"When he messes up again, he goes back to prison for all those offenses that he never had a jury trial or a decent lawyer for, so we've put the poor in this really caste system of criminal justice," she says.

This interview is part of WUWM's Project Milwaukee: Black Men in Prison series, in conjunction with MPTV. You can find all the reports here.