A new report by The Sentencing Project places Wisconsin at the top of a grim list. It imprisons more of its African-American male adults than any other state. In fact, one in every 36 Black men in Wisconsin is incarcerated.
This is a staggering fact on its own, but it is also true that Wisconsin incarcerates a much greater percentage of African-Americans than it does white people. Black people make up 42% of Wisconsin’s prison population even though they comprise just 6% of the state’s population. This is a tremendous disparity, since African-Americans are not thought to commit crimes at any greater rate than other races.
All across the United States, Black Americans are put behind bars, on average, at five times the rate of white people. In Wisconsin, Black people are incarcerated at almost 12 times the rate of whites.
If Black people are no more prone to crime, what’s going on?
According to the report, which relies on data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, the problem appears to be pervasive racism at every step of the American criminal justice process. For example:
- Black people are arrested at a greater rate than their presence in the population
- Black people spend more time in jail before trial than white people do
- Black people are sentenced to longer terms for the same crimes as white people
- Black people are more likely than similarly situated white people to be charged as habitual offenders
A 2020 study by Wisconsin’s court system already pointed to these problems. For example, it found that Black and Native American men are significantly more likely (28% and 34%) than white men to receive prison sentences after the same behavior.
Also last year, dozens of current and former Wisconsin Supreme Court and appellate judges wrote an open letter calling for change.
“We cannot turn a blind eye to the issues of racial disparity and mass incarceration,” reads the letter. “Too many people of color are behind bars in Wisconsin. We need to carefully consider treatment as a means of addressing issues of trauma, mental illness, and addiction.”
Wisconsin is at the top of a list that’s grim in every state
Although the report found Wisconsin to have the most extreme disparities between Black people and white people in terms of incarceration, the problem exists nationwide. The upper Midwest and the northeast had the biggest disparities.
Hawaii, which has the smallest racial disparity, still incarcerates Black adults at over twice the rate of white adults.
Wisconsinites will not like being at the top of the list for racial disparities in imprisonment. We think better of our state. But change has to come.