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Wisconsin’s Incarceration Problem

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President Obama pardoned 13 people last week and commuted the sentences of eight others. Each of these commuted sentences was related to violations concerning crack cocaine. President Obama was able to do so by invoking the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Prior to the passage of the FSA, possession of crack cocaine held a far more stiff sentence than possession of powder cocaine. This was widely believed to be aimed at incarcerating African Americans because for those who use cocaine, blacks are more likely to be caught with crack whereas whites are generally caught with the powder form.

The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, both per capita and in real numbers. Although we are only 5% of the world’s population, we possess 25% of the world’s prison population. Globally speaking, comparable countries incarcerate at a rate of 100 people per 100,000, but the US rate is 500 per 100,000. These rates are even more alarming when broken down by race:

Race Rate (Per 100,000)

Black 3,074

Latino 1,258

White 459

Wisconsin is no exception. Wisconsin ranks #1 in the country for our rate of incarcerating African Americans. The state’s incarceration rate is 12.8%, meaning that one in eight black men are currently in state prison. In Milwaukee, the numbers are even more stark. More than half of the black men in Milwaukee have been incarcerated at one point or another, leaving them virtually unemployable as more and more employers run routine background checks. 2/3s of them are in the cities 6 poorest zip codes.

Incarceration rates:

Race Wisconsin National

Black 12.8% 6.7%

Native 7.6% 3.1%

Latino 1.7% 2.0%

White 1.2% 1.3%

Governor Doyle had created a commission to look into this issue, determine its cause, and find a resolution. Unfortunately, by the time the commission finished their report, Doyle’s term was nearly over. Unless he is keeping it quiet from the media, Scott Walker has done little with this information,

This issue leads to many other questions: What happens if Wisconsin adopts a private prison system that gives corporations a financial incentive to lock up our citizens? Should parts of the Civil Rights Act be expanded to the state of Wisconsin? Could this be a ploy to strip African Americans of their right to vote (at least temporarily)? Are these numbers legit and we just have more of a problem than other states?

It would be hard to believe that Wisconsin simply has more of an issue than other states. However, the other questions deserve investigation. Private prisons are growing rapidly in our country. This issue should unite liberals and civil libertarians because none of us want a police state, nor do we want someone to have a financial interest in our incarceration.

Perhaps the recently gutted Civil Rights Act should be reinstated and expanded to states in the north as well as the south. The republicans will stop at nothing to rig the system in a way that stops Democratic voters from casting their ballots. Could this be another strategy for them to hold on to power as long as possible, despite the demographic shift in this country? This problem goes back farther than Scott Walker’s reign of power, but he sure doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to change the situation.

Hear our thoughts on this topic and many more on Civil Discourse Radio!

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