Wisconsin Correctional Facility
The grounds of the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in Prairie du Chien, Wis. (Ryan J Foley/AP/Shutterstock)

Wisconsin Imprisons More Blacks Per Capita Than Any Other State in the US, New Report Reveals

Black Americans have a long history of being over-policed and charged with crimes at a disproportionately higher rate than whites — and nowhere in the United States does that appear truer than in the state of Wisconsin.

Deon J. Hampton of NBC News has reported that “years of housing segregation and redlining have contributed to Wisconsin imprisoning its Black residents at a rate higher than any other state in the country.”

Based on data from a new report from The Sentencing Project, a political advocacy group that works to promote reduced incarceration for people of all races, “1 in every 36 Black people is currently in prison in the state.” In other words, while Blacks make up 42% of the state’s total prison population, they only account for 6% of Wisconsin’s total population.

The Sentencing Project’s report used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to Hampton, the report revealed that “Black Wisconsinites are also nearly 12 times as likely as their white counterparts to be imprisoned, well above the national average and behind only New Jersey in the rate of racial disparity between Black people and white people.”

In an interview with NBC News, Larry Dupuis, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said The Sentencing Project’s report is just capturing some of the numerous, long-standing problems within the state.

“For many years, Milwaukee has been one of the top segregated areas in the country by most measures,” Dupuis said. “It has a long history that persists today because of deeply entrenched residential housing segregation. I think that plays a significant role in how this ends up playing out into these huge disparities by race in the criminal justice system.” 

Researchers working on The Sentencing Project report found that approximately 65% of Black men and women in Wisconsin live in the highly segregated Milwaukee County, a statistic that greatly contributes to their disproportionate imprisonment rate. 

“Police can occupy Black and brown neighborhoods, putting them under heavy surveillance [where] they’re more likely to be stopped and arrested,” Dupuis said.

In addition to discriminatory and racist policing in the state, experts say prosecution rates are higher, and plea deals are lower for Black residents within Wisconsin compared to the rest of the nation. White residents face fewer arrests within the state, and prosecutors are less likely to press charges in cases involving white people.

“It’s not just incarceration; there are also housing, education, employment inequality and housing discrimination issues,” Christopher Uggen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, told Hampton.

Uggen said these inequalities are often the difference between a person being sentenced to prison or simply receiving probation.

“Addressing the disparities in the state’s criminal justice system requires reclassifying some acts, so they are no longer considered a crime, disciplining officers for racial profiling, and reducing housing segregation,” Dupuis told Hampton. “Right now, there’s [just] no consequence for racially biased policing in Milwaukee.”

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