Wisconsin’s prison system, like the American criminal legal system at large, has always been steeped in white supremacy. It’s deliberately designed to disproportionately target, lock up, and prey upon communities of color. Racism is a hallmark of our state prison system, and the devastating consequences that have arisen as a result of that reality have long been clear to the Black and Brown Wisconsinites harmed by it.
The need to root out racism from Wisconsin prisons is as urgent as ever. According to a report published by The Sentencing Project in October, Wisconsin has the highest Black incarceration rate in the country. Data shows that 1 in 36 Black Wisconsinites are currently incarcerated, meaning Black people are nearly 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than white people.
At every level, the American legal system is stacked against Black individuals, Indigenous Americans, and people of color. On a national level, if you are Black in this country, you are more likely to be arrested, convicted of a crime, receive a longer prison sentence, and be punished more harshly than a white person. Racial bias permeates each layer of our system -- impacting everything from initial arrests and pretrial detention to how a person is treated once they are on parole or probation.
In Wisconsin, these disparities are most obviously reflected in the extreme over-representation of Black people in prison, but race also contributes to stark differences in arrests, charging and conviction decisions, and even extends into community supervision. Data on police traffic stops collected as part of a separate report released in late September found that Black Milwaukeeans were nearly ten times more likely to be subjected to traffic stops than white residents. And similar inequities continue to follow Black and Brown Wisconsinites as they move through the system.
A 2020 study of Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties revealed that Black men residing in those judicial districts were 51% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white people, while Latinx men were 30% more likely to get a prison sentence. According to that same study, Native American men were 34% as likely to get a prison sentence statewide.
The scale of the racist mass incarceration crisis is massive, and it will take far-reaching and ambitious solutions to put an end to it. We need legislative changes that will roll back long-standing harmful “tough-on-crime” policies like mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, draconian drug penalties, and crimeless revocation. But we also need to enact explicitly race-conscious proposals, such as requiring racial impact statements, which examine the effects that a change to criminal law might have on different racial groups.
Aside from strictly legislative reforms, social and cultural shifts in how we view the role of the criminal legal system are just as important. Our society has long assumed that the carceral system is the one and only mechanism through which public safety can be produced. The truth is that decades of research on the causes of crime tell us that many of the conditions which lead to violence include poverty, joblessness, low wages, exposure to violence and trauma, and hopelessness for the future.
Given that context, it’s clear why mass incarceration will never provide the safety our communities deserve. Jails and prisons not only fail to address these root causes of crime, but they also make the problems worse. That’s why preventing violence and making our state a safer place to live requires robust public investments to tackle poverty, boost wages, end homelessness and housing insecurity, provide equal access to education, healthcare, and more.
It’s time to divest from prisons and invest in communities.