Friday, February 8, 2008

Racial Disparity

Yet another report was released that confirmed what we already knew - blacks are incarcerated at a dizzying rate compared with their proportion of the population in Wisconsin. The governor appointed yet another commission to study this well documented problem - you may remember that Gov. Thompson did this in 2000 (investigating racial profiling - gee, ya think?) and that the recommendations (including treatment for addicts and diversion of nonviolent drug offenders) were promptly put on a shelf and everyone felt much better because it made great headlines. Well, it’s deja vu all over again with the new report from the Governor’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in Wisconsin’s Justice System. The report tells us what the numbers are: blacks are 6% of the population but 45% of the prison population. We also know that about 30% - 40% of the prison population consists of nonviolent drug offenders (most of which are black). The solution? Treatment and diversion. Hmmmm, that’s just crazy enough to work!

In fairness, the recommendations that would give crack addicts the same treatment response as afforded to meth users, getting DA’s to commit to guidelines to train staffers to recognize discrimination and reverse laws that bar drug offenders from financial aid and public housing are wise. However, despite Co-Chair Sen. Spencer Coggs optimism, the legislature is unlikely to make this a priority. The problem? They ultimately really don’t care about felons because they have no money, no power and are easy to pick on. Also, by introducing tough-on-crime bills they get some nice headlines for the folks back home.

After lobbying the legislature for years on a variety of bills - good and bad - I can tell you that the only arguments that really carry the day in Madison is: this will save you money or this will make you look good. While these recommendations are sound and make sense, the only way that any of them will see the governors desk is to package them are money saving vehicles (which they are) and make sense in a rehabilitative sense (streets are safer). With the current crop of republicans, I have my doubts.

John A. Birdsall, Birdsall Law Offices, S.C.
135 W. Wells St., Ste 214, Milwaukee, WI 53203
414.831.5465 -