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The United States prison population is still the world's highest, with more than 1.5 million people behind bars. Black men are more likely to be sent to prison than white men, and often on drug offenses. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee looked at that state's incarceration rates and found they were the highest in the country for black men.
The University of Wisconsin researchers say their analysis was truly eye-opening. They found that Wisconsin's incarceration rate for black men — 13 percent — was nearly double the country's rate.
"We were so far above everybody else. That just sort of stunned us when we saw that," says Professor John Pawasarat, who studied two decades of Wisconsin's prison and employment data.
Pawasarat found that nearly 1 in 8 black men of working age in Milwaukee County had served some time in the state's correctional facilities. At 13 percent, the rate was about 3 percentage points above Oklahoma's — the state with the second highest rate of incarceration for black males. (Gene Demby wrote about this same topic and noted that Wisconsin also has the highest rate of Native American men who are behind bars. One in 13 Indian men are incarcerated.)
"The explosion really took place in the year 2000 to 2008 where mandatory sentencing, three strikes was put in place and it more than tripled the population in just a few years, which meant about half of the black men in their 30s or early 40s in Milwaukee County would have spent time in the state's correctional facilities. And two-thirds of the men come from the six poorest zip codes in Milwaukee," says Pawasarat.
At Project Return in Milwaukee, some of those men show up for a weekly alcohol and drug abuse treatment program. Here, they get a chance to talk about mistakes they've made, troubles finding work, and problems with probation officers. Darnell Brown, 35, and Daniel White, 27, say African-American men get constant reminders about serving time:
"Every black man here that get pulled over right now, there's a standard protocol that the officer asks you: You got a driver's license and are you on probation, that's the automatic thing they ask you. Or it's also when they look your name up and see your charge, they automatically [ask], you got any dope or guns in the car depending on what your case is too. And it's so funny to me, the more you cooperate, it seems the more intimidating the system gets."
About 40 percent of the black men in Milwaukee County get locked up for low-level drug offenses. LeRoy Johnson says that's why he cycled in and out of prison for years:
"Everytime, I get revocated, it be for smoking marijuana. When I went to last program I told them I'm not coming back no more. I'll probably die in prison if I go back again. That's me. I just can't."
Wisconsin prison officials refused to talk to NPR for this story. But John Chisholm, Milwaukee County District Attorney, has argued for modifying the state's mandatory minimum sentencing policies. He says crimes and prosecutions have dropped dramatically since 2010. Chisolm also says that it's too simple to suggest that Wisconsin's incarceration rate for African-American men is the nation's highest because blacks commit more crimes.
"Our incarceration rate is high not necessarily because of the number of offenses and the number of prosecutions. What's driving our incarceration rate is failure under supervision," says Chisolm. "If you are placing someone under long terms of supervision without a lot of meaningful conditions then there's a lot of opportunity to mess that up and if they do that in Wisconsin they can go back for the entire time.
Chisholm concedes that studies have shown there are racial disparities when it comes to who goes to prison for low-level drug offenses. He says his office has set up programs, like drug and treatment alternatives that have kept thousands of offenders out of prison. Clem Richardson, leader of Project Run, says there's an even more urgent need:
"We need jobs, am I right. Yes. We need training. Yes. And we need education. These men will work, which a lot of them do learn while they are incarcerated. It's just when they come back out here, they don't have nothing out here for them. So you see the mass incarceration rate of them with the high recidivism rate of going back because of what's going on."
News of the dramatic rate of black male incarceration in Wisconsin has energized a coalition of churches working to reduce it. The effort is called the "11 by 15" campaign. Spokesperson Kathy Walker, whose brother served time, says the campaign aims to halve the number of imprisoned in Wisconsin to 11,000 inmates by 2015.
"We are working hard to get money for transitional jobs. We are doing grants trying to help. We are trying to empower them to do better. We are the Paul Reveres," says Walker. "Get ready because this is going to change. One neighborhood at a time but this is going to change."
Walker says the coalition is not only hopeful, but dedicated in the mission to stop the state's mass incarceration of black men and to prevent more people, regardless of race, from getting locked up in Wisconsin's prisons and jails.