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You can't talk about criminal justice without talking about race

No one really wants to discuss race these days, particularly here in the Midwest. America likes to think of itself as a post-racial society, but there is plenty of data to demonstrate that this isn't true. This is one reason why the events in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer have resonated so strongly around the country, including here in Wisconsin.

Race is still a significant factor in the criminal justice system, particularly for low-level offenses such as drug crimes. Need proof? A new study conducted by the Wisconsin State Journal found that over the past 18 months, Madison law enforcement officers have arrested or cited African Americans for marijuana offenses at rates 12 times higher than that of whites. This is in spite of studies showing that rates of pot use are nearly equal between whites and blacks.

African Americans account for just 7 percent of Madison's population, but they represent fully half of those charged with marijuana offenses. The criminal justice statistics analyzed spanned all of 2013 and the first six months of 2014.

It is hard to come up with any logical explanation for these statistics that doesn't include selective enforcement of drug laws. Even if police spend more time patrolling in "bad" neighborhoods known for drug crimes, it is hard to ignore the fact that these neighborhoods often are often predominantly African American.

Racial disparities in drug arrests, prosecution and sentencing are not unique to Wisconsin. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, "African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites." This is in spite of the fact that drug offenses in general tend to be higher among whites.

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion nationwide about whether marijuana should be legalized (or decriminalized), and whether the war on drugs has done more harm than good. These are complex issues that may not be resolved any time soon.

But one thing is abundantly clear: We cannot and must not condone a criminal justice system that selectively enforces laws based on race.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Report finds Madison's arrests for pot hit blacks disproportionately," Sept. 14, 2014

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