Racial disparity in the criminal justice system is worse in Wisconsin than anywhere else in the country, studies say, and it's worse in Dane County than the state as a whole.
The Minority Impact Statement bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Nikiya Harris, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood, 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.
If the committee finds that a bill will have a disparate impact on racial minority groups, the bill’s author must either offer an amendment to the bill to reduce the disparate impact or provide in writing their reason for advancing a bill that will disproportionately affect minorities.
“We really have to look at why we are passing laws that create this environment and what these laws are accomplishing,” Pasch said. “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 cosponsors. 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.
Pasch said too many young, minority males start out 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,” Pasch said.
According to a report released this week by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, Wisconsin leads the nation in the percentage of African-American incarcerated.
While African-American men made up 4.8 percent of Dane County’s total adult male population, 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.
The Race to Equity report also found that in 2012, African-American adults were arrested in Dane County at a rate eight times that of whites. 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.
The racial imbalances in Dane County’s 2012 incarceration numbers were remarkable as well. While African-American men made up 4.8 percent of the county’s total adult male population, they accounted for more than 43 percent of all new adult prison placements during the year, according to the report.
The report found racial disparity in Dane County begins at a young age for offenders.
For example, in 2010, the county’s black youth arrest rate was 469 per 1,000, compared to 77 per 1,000 for whites, yielding a disparity ratio of 6.1 to 1.
To put this into context, black teens in Dane County in 2010 were six times more likely to be arrested than whites living here, while black youth in the rest of the state were just three times as likely to be arrested as whites and nationally, black youths were only a little more than twice as likely to be arrested than their white peers.
“The legislation is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Erica Nelson, the project director for the “Race to Equity” report. “Beginning to look at policy changes and decision making with a racial equity lenses is really important, especially in places like Dane County. It makes people take a step back and realize the implications of when a before it is enacted.”
Editor's note: This first paragraph of this story has been amended to more accurately reflect the Race to Equity report's characterization of Dane County compared to the rest of Wisconsin.