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Reasons Why

A UW-Milwaukee study released last year finds Wisconsin has the nation’s highest rate of black male incarceration, by far. In 2010, one in eight working-age black men in Wisconsin was in prison, and in Milwaukee County, more than half of the African American men in their thirties had served time. Oklahoma has the next highest rate, which is six percentage points lower than Wisconsin’s.

Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African American MalesFrom Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013 report, by John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn of the Employment and Training Institute University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

The reasons for Wisconsin’s high rate of black male incarceration are complex, ranging from racial segregation to racial divides in prosecutions for drug-related crimes. Limited job opportunities, tougher drug laws, mandatory sentences and a high rate of recidivism also play a role.

Higher Incarceration Rates Overall

Compared to the 1970s, the United States is incarcerating seven times as many people. This general increase in incarceration has exacerbated racial disparities, with black Americans being put behind bars at least six times the rate of their white peers. At the same time, money for programs like education, vocational training and substance abuse treatment and counseling has become more limited, due to budget cuts. As a result, there is a high rate of recidivism in Wisconsin. A 2012 study says one-third of all Wisconsin offenders who get out of prison or jail are incarcerated again, after just three years.

Harsher Penalties for Drug Crimes

Given the high rate of unemployment among black men in Milwaukee, some men break the law by selling drugs because they are trying to earn fast cash. Drug-related crimes account for as many as 75 to 85 percent of all inmates in Wisconsin prisons. Of the 26,000 black men from Milwaukee County sent to prison since 1990, 40 percent were for drug offenses. Additionally, drug crimes soared from 2002 to 2005, during which time black men were more than 10 times as likely to be imprisoned as white men, according to the UWM study.

Since the 1980s, tougher drug laws have also contributed to increasing rates of incarceration. These include the growing use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and Truth in Sentencing – no early release from prison. The number of black men imprisoned in Wisconsin began to climb around the time many of these policies were implemented, peaking in 2007.

Additionally, unmet mental health needs may be contributing to the high incarceration rate. Organizations that work with inmates often find they have received alcohol and drug abuse counseling, but it has not addressed the underlying causes of their addictions.

Young People at Risk

There are signs that for some black men, their first interactions with the legal system start young. The number of black youth being arrested is increasing, often for reasons such as truancy or drug use. Many young people growing up in high crime and high incarceration neighborhoods end up being solicited by adult criminals for illicit purposes. Many black youth grow up believing they’ll spend time in prison. Additionally, Milwaukee has the third-youngest African American population of the country’s 50 largest metro areas, which some experts say contributes to the issue.

Revoked Driver’s Licenses and Police Traffic Stops

Surprisingly, suspended driver’s licenses also can play a role in incarcerations. Milwaukee takes away more licenses than any other municipal body in Wisconsin. Licenses often are suspended or revoked for offenses such as failure to parking tickets, or driving with a broken headlight. This disproportionately affects poor drivers. A recent report found that in 2011, Milwaukee County issued 97,000 Failure to Pay Forfeiture (FPF) suspensions, 65 percent of which went to black drivers.

As a result, the majority of black Milwaukeeans do not have a valid driver’s license. The UWM study found that in recent years, 90 percent of the African American men in Wisconsin’s prisons did not have a valid license. But many people with FPF suspensions continue to drive, often to get to work, even though they risk more fines and even jail time.

Such drivers may become easy targets for police stops. The Milwaukee Police Department reportedly stops as many as 500 cars a day. Some criticize police for concentrating patrols in low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods. However, Police Chief Edward Flynn defends the practice, saying police focus on areas where the most criminal activity is taking place. Flynn argues that 80 percent of traffic stops do not result in a citation, even as traffic stops have increased from approximately 50,000 per year to 180,000 per year.

More on the reasons behind Wisconsin’s high black male incarceration rate:

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