Monday, May 12, 2008

Prison: A Black and White Proposition

Well, it's official....blacks are incarcerated at a higher rate than whites throughout the United States with Wisconsin landing the, ahem, coveted #1 spot. Two recent studies (one by Human Rights Watch and the other by the Washington based Sentencing Project) conclude:
  • Blacks in Wisconsin are 42 times more likely than whites to receive prison terms for drug convictions. Wisconsin has the highest racial disparity in drug sentencing in the nation.

  • Blacks in Milwaukee are seven times more likely to be arrested for a drug offense than whites. Milwaukee has the second-highest racial disparity for drug arrests among all major U.S. cities.

  • Nationally, the rate of drug arrests of African-Americans in more than 40 large cities increased 225% since 1980, compared with 70% among whites.

According to national surveys, about the same percentage of blacks and whites use illegal drugs, meaning that because the white population is much larger, many more whites than blacks actually use illegal drugs.

"The alarming increase in drug arrests since 1980, concentrated among African Americans, raises fundamental questions about fairness and justice," writes Ryan S. King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project and author of its report, "Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America's Cities."

The report examines data from 43 of the nation's largest cities between 1980 and 2003.

"But even more troubling," King writes, "is the fact that these trends come not as the result of higher rates of drug use among African Americans, but, instead, the decision by local law officials about where to pursue drug enforcement."

My opening line is tongue-in-cheek because to anyone who works in the criminal justice system (or even casually pays attention to these matters) has known this for decades. What is remarkable is the expanding disparity here in Wisconsin. While it is no mystery why this occurs blacks live disproportionally in high crime areas that receive greater police scrutiny - no one seems to have any serious solutions. The legislature is nearly worthless - they won't take the courageous step of stepping down the penalties for non-violent drug offenders because they lack the polictical courage. It will have to fall to local officials, most notably and commendably Milwauke DA John Chisholm, to really attack this problem as a treatment issue rather than the ever-easy criminal route. This can be facilitated through the institution of drug courts that will allow judges the option of diverting cases that involve obvious treatment issues into community solutions which cost about 80% less per year than the cost of incarceration. It seems to me that the only people that could be against this are those with a huge vested interest: prison unions, and construction

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

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