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Wisconsin Followed Trend As U.S. Sent Higher Rate of Black Men to Prison

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Though Wisconsin has the unfortunate distinction of having the country's highest rate of black male incarceration, it does fall in line with national trends.

Black Americans are incarcerated at about six to seven times the rate of their white peers, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, studying the intersection of the country's sentencing policies and race. Latinos are incarcerated about 2.5 times the rate of whites.

"This comes at a point where the U.S. incarceration rates actually, in the world, lead, of how we imprison our people," he says.  

He says the U.S. has now seven times as many people behind bars as it did in the early 1970s - and racial disparities in the use of incarceration are growing.

Not one reason

Mauer says there are complicated reasons why ethnic and racial minorities are put behind bars at such a dramatically higher rate. It's not as simple, he says, as saying white offenders receive different sentences than black offenders committing the same crime; studies are inconclusive on whether there is a difference in the kinds of sentences black and white offenders receive.

Rather many factors come into play to put more black men in prison.

"There's a cumulative effect of how cases are processed in the justice system, so decisions made by law enforcement of who to arrest, by prosecutors and what kind of charges, by the quality of the defense attorney, judicial decisions, each decision making point may have an impact on the outcome of those cases," Mauer says. "So I think we need to look at the totality of decision-making to try to get a feel for how that plays out."

Changing approach to crime

Mauer says people who have committed crimes should be punished, but the way we think about preventing and dealing with crime needs to change. Police must be able to enforce laws, but should use discretion in enforcing those laws. In the past, society promoted public safety through a variety of institutions, he says, such as family upbringing, community support, education, and access to opportunities, as well as criminal justice initiatives.

"What's happened in recent decades is that I think we've gotten very much out of balance, that we've come to rely very heavily on the criminal justice system as our primary response to disorder, misbehavior, particularly in low income communities of color and in many respects that's set up a vicious cycle," he says.

By putting more money into the criminal justice system - to pay for police, prosecutors, and prisons - there is less money to go into prevention and intervention treatments that Mauer says "might head off the cycle of crime in the first place."

Money for programming, such as education, vocational training, and substance abuse treatment and counseling, becomes even more limited. For example, Mauer says the "war on drugs" has created a two-tiered system of dealing with crime. As policing of drug crimes ramped up since the 1980s, it created "strong racially disparate outcomes," he says. The parents in a middle income community with a teen with a drug problem will likely try to get their child into a treatment program, rather than involving the police.

"When similar problems come up in low income communities, those same resources are not available so it's more likely to become a criminal justice problem," he says. "We throw police and prosecutors and prison cells at the problem there."

Sentencing policies

Additionally, Mauer says many of the sentencing policies put in place in the last several decades, such as tough on crime sentencing and the "war on drugs" have grown the incarceration rate and, he says, contributed to the racial disparities.

Some of these policies, such as "three strikes rules," require long sentences, and make Mauer question their effectiveness and compassion. Such long sentences, he says, also reduce the need for society to consider that these men might one day return to the community.

"Ninety-five percent of people sent to prison are coming home someday," he says. "If we all we care about is vengeance and punishment, we're selling ourselves short, I think. It's in everyone's interest that when people come home from prison they be better equipped, better prepared to make it, better in the community than before they were sent there. And in many respects we've done the opposite of what's needed, in many cases."

Mandatory minimums

Mandatory minimums have also exacerbated the racial disparities, Mauer says. These policies create harsh penalties based on certain criteria involved in the committing of a crime, such as what amount of drugs or what kind of drugs were involved. Under these policies, a judge cannot take into consideration any other factors and must hand down a sentence of a mandatory minimum time based solely on these particular details.

But Mauer says the political tide may be turning against mandatory minimums, as Attorney General Eric Holder has been working with states around the country looking at these policies. He even delivered a speech this past year in which he said, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long" - which Mauer called remarkable words coming from an Attorney General.

Additionally, Mauer says both Republican and Democratic leaders have been critical of the excessive use of mandatory minimums and the Senate Judiciary committee is poised to consider two bills to reform mandatory sentences.

This interview is part of WUWM's Project Milwaukee: Black Men in Prison series, looking at Wisconsin and Milwaukee's high rate of black male incarceration.