Wisconsin Lawmakers Target Institutional Racism

Report shows that racial disparity in the criminal justice system is worse in Wisconsin than anywhere else in the country.

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Republican lawmakers meet in the Wisconsin State Capitol Senate chambers Feb. 22, 2011, in Madison, Wis. 

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Wisconsin leads the nation in the percentage of incarcerated African Americans, according to a report released this week by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

While African-American men made up 4.8 percent of the total adult male population in Dane County, whose county seat is Madison, Wis., which is also the state capital, they accounted for more than 43 percent of all new adult prison placements during the year, according to the Race to Equity report released by Wisconsin Council on Children and Families in October. 

Additionally, African-American adults were arrested in Dane County at a rate that was eight times that of whites, the Cap Times reports. That compares to a black-white arrest disparity of about 4 to 1 for the rest of Wisconsin and 2.5 to 1 across the country as a whole.

Now, lawmakers are seeking to turn the tide of the longstanding problem through legislation. The Minority Impact Statement bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Nikiya Harris and Rep. Sandy Pasch seeks to reverse what Pasch calls “institutionalized racism” by requiring a legislative committee to prepare a racial-impact statement any time a new crime is created or a criminal penalty for an existing crime is modified, the Times reports.

If the committee finds that a proposed measure would have a disparate impact on racial minority groups the lawmaker must either amend it, reduce the disparate impact or provide in writing their reason for advancing the bill that will negatively impact minorities, the Times reports. 

“We really have to look at why we are passing laws that create this environment and what these laws are accomplishing,” Pasch said told the Times. “Wisconsin leads the nation in incarcerating minority men. That puts a responsibility on us to start addressing this in a meaningful way.”

Lawmakers have until the end of Wednesday to sign on and support the bill as co-sponsors. Passage of the bill would make Wisconsin the fourth state to require minority impact statements on criminal legislation. Iowa, Connecticut and Oregon have passed similar laws, the report says.

Pasch told the Times that too many young, minority males begin their adult lives with criminal records, which prevents them from voting, makes it difficult to get a job, find housing and tears families apart.

“An affluent white man who gets the right attorney will be able to plea bargain down a criminal charge to a misdemeanor while a poor African-American man who can’t afford an attorney will more than likely end up with the felony charge and end up in prison,” she told the Times.

Read more at the Cap Times.