Wisconsin's High Black Male Incarceration Rate Concerns Community Leaders
Editor’s note: This story was updated February 23, 2019 to clarify statistics included in the original post, which have since been removed *
A UW-Milwaukee study released this year shows Wisconsin has the country’s highest rate of black male incarceration, by far.
In Milwaukee County, more than half the African American men in their thirties have served time.
The numbers may be shocking, but some in the Milwaukee community aren't surprised, like state Rep. Mandela Barnes.
"We already knew that the state of Wisconsin put more black men behind bars than they do into universities, but to see the numbers on paper, it helps when we try to build the case and take it it other people," he says. "Now it's on people's minds, now it's on people's radar and now it's time to do something about it."
Retired Lutheran pastor Joe Ellwanger has been addressing the issue in his work with the faith community for some time, but still he says there's some startling data in the report.
"What's really striking from this study, that not only does Wisconsin have the highest rate of African American incarceration, but it is six percentage points higher than the next state," he says. Oklahoma has the next highest rate.
Ellwanger says the study shows Milwaukee's 53206 zip code is especially affected by the problem. Many men from that area are currently in prison or return there after prison.
The reasons behind such a high rate of black male incarceration are complex. But Ellwanger says one cause is a racial divide in prosecutions for drug-related crimes.
"The rate of drug uses and drug sales in the white community versus the black community is almost exactly the same, but there's a saying that if you have the money you get the treatment, if your poor you go to jail or you go to prison," he says. "Though that's an overstatement, there's a lot of truth in it."
Ellwanger says Wisconsin needs to change how it deals with drug offenders, who often have underlying drug addictions. He says sending people to treatment versus prison isn't just a "matter of compassion," but "a matter of fiscal responsibility."
"This is basically why Minnesota has its prison rate down to less than half of what Wisconsin's is," he says. "They deal with low risk persons who have underlying drug addictions and that's the root of the crime."
State Rep. Barnes says this isn't to say that people who deserve to be in jail for their crimes shouldn't be incarcerated, but he worries about the economic consequences of such a high rate of imprisonment.
"It becomes a drain on the entire community once a person (is) in prison," Barnes says. "They aren't able to be productive...They aren't going to be able to be taxpayers. They aren't going to be able to generate revenue for the state. They aren't going to be able to be a part of the workforce."
Barnes says that can lead to a cycle of violence, in which a previously nonviolent offender in prison becomes violent after learning "violent means of survival."
Milwaukee Public Television will be investigating the high rate of black male incarceration in a six-month series, in collaboration with WUWM's "Project Milwaukee" series. MPTV's "Black Nouveau" producer Everett Marshburn says it's important to work toward better understanding the issue.
"We've got to break the cycle," Marshburn says. "We've got to get people interested in finding solutions and that works both ways. There are institutional issues, but there are also personal issues and things that people have to do, things that men have to do."
You can find the full list of broadcasts and stories here.
* In the original story, retired pastor Joe Ellwanger stated that 75-85 percent of inmates in Wisconsin prisons “were there for drugs.” He clarified his statement on February 22, 2019, adding this: “It does not mean they were all there for possession and/or sale of drugs. It means that they were there because they committed a crime to feed their addictive habit, or because they were under the influence of drugs, or because they were convicted for sale/possession of drugs, or because their decision-making was negatively affected by their underlying drug addiction and/or mental health issue.”