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WUWM & MPTV Special SeriesWhy are so many Wisconsinites behind bars?And, what are the costs?In the 2010 Census, Wisconsin had the highest percentage of incarcerated black men in the nation. One out of every eight black men of working age is behind bars. In Milwaukee County, more than half of African American men in their thirties have served time in prison.Over the course of six months, WUWM and MPTV explored Wisconsin's high rate of black male incarceration, through expert analysis and personal stories.Why is the rate so high?How does imprisonment affect the men and their futures, as well as their families, neighborhoods and the region's economy?What are possible solutions?Contribute Your IdeasDo you have questions you'd like to have answered? Stories you'd like to share? Please share your questions and comments with us.

Drug Policies From 1990s Led to High Numbers of Incarceration

A study released in spring shows the number of black men imprisoned in Wisconsin began to climb around 1990 and peaked in 2007.

Incarceration rates for black men in Milwaukee County have reached epidemic levels, according to John Pawasarat. He’s director of UWM’s Employment and Training Institute and co-authored the study, Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African-American Males. Pawasarat says the numbers started to rise, soon after crack cocaine hit the streets of Milwaukee’s central city.

“The combination of that with other factors drove it up to the point where we had, as we last studied it, 26,000 African-American males, well over half being incarcerated for drug related offenses,” Pawasarat says.

Pawasarat says ‘other factors’ included the Legislature passing a series of tough-on-crime measures throughout the 90s. They included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and later, ‘truth in sentencing’ – no early release from prison.

Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman was a member of the Assembly during the 90s, and supported the tougher stands. He says elected leaders had to nip violent crime in the bud.

“People were routinely committing murders who had already committed prior crimes and (were) let out of prison. The public was rightfully appalled,” Grothman says.

“If you could point to any one factor and say this is why the prison population is going up, certainly the drug prosecutions had a lot to do with it,” Kremers says.

Jeffrey Kremers is Milwaukee County’s Chief Judge. He says crimes associated with crack cocaine swamped the court system.

“We created our three speedy drug courts that were designed to handle drug trafficking offenses or significant drug possession cases and trying to do that as expeditiously as possible,” Kremers says.

"Forty percent of the African American males from Milwaukee County incarcerated since 1990 were drug offenders." - UWM Study

Kremers says each year, more than 1,000 defendants pass through Milwaukee’s drug courts. One of them is 53-year-old Earl Oglesby. The court is sentencing him today for possession of cocaine. Oglesby asks Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Daniel Konkel for mercy.

“I would like to apologize for my conduct on the streets and in the community. I’ve made a couple of mistakes and I’m learning as I go. I’m learning how to live without drugs and I’m enjoying it,” Oglesby says.

Oglesby has already served time behind bars for possessing drugs and bail jumping. The judge admonishes him, but notes that Oglesby is participating in drug treatment and holds down a 40-hour-a-week job.

“With that in mind Mr. Oglesby, it is the order of the court that you serve six months at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. I’m going to stay that and place you on probation for a period of two years,” Judge Konkel says.

With the warning: if you’re caught for any crime during those two years, you’re going to jail. Even though Wisconsin leads the country in incarcerating black men, the numbers are declining, according to Milwaukee Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers.

“I’d like to think that a lot of the programs and efforts that have been undertaken by the DOC, by the district attorney’s office, by the court system, by a host of people in the community to address criminal activity have had a positive effect on the crime rate,” Kremers says.

In recent times, as heroin has claimed lives statewide, the Legislature has approved money for drug treatment courts and other alternatives to incarceration, for offenders who did not commit violent crimes.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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