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Wisconsin leads U.S. in black male incarceration

UWM Study | Study Slide Show (PDF) | Other UWM-ETI Prison Research | News Reports and Videos | Incarceration Readings

  • A detailed analysis of state corrections records by the UWM Employment and Training Institute found that over half of black men in their 30s in the county have been incarcerated in state prisons (1990-2012).
  • Wisconsin's prison population has more than tripled since 1990, fueled by increased government funding for drug enforcement (rather than treatment), investments in prison construction, so-called "truth-in-sentencing" replacing judicial discretion in setting punishments, concentrated policing in minority communities, and state incarceration for minor probation and supervision violations. Particularly impacted were African American males with 40% of black male prisoners showing drug offenses.
  • Given the high levels of racial and economic segregation in Milwaukee County, two-thirds of the county's incarcerated black men came from 6 zip codes in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

  • map showing intensity of incarceration in Milwaukee zipcode 53206
  • A third of the 26,222 men incarcerated had only non-violent offenses.
  • Another 27,874 men (non-offenders) have driver's license violations, mostly for failure to pay fines and civil forfeitures, preventing them from legally driving.

    The study on Wisconsin's Mass Incarceration of African American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013 recommends alternatives to incarceration for lower-risk offenders with the savings used to increase workforce support for released prisoners and for non-offending youth and young adults facing barriers to employment. See additional ETI research on prisons.

    graph of black incarceration rates

    Wisconsin has the highest black male incarceration rate in the United States, according to estimates from the 2010 decennial census. The rate (1 out of 8 African American men ages 18-64 were in state prisons and local jails in April 2010) is nearly double that of the nation as a whole and 32% higher than the next worst state (Oklahoma).

    dollar sign African American income assets

    The report Building on African American Assets: Resource Data for the ONE MKE Summit identifies the zip code locations of the $3.5 billion in income of black residents of Milwaukee County. Over 70% of this income is concentrated in the 9 zip codes where African Americans make up the majority of the population. The report calls for locally-developed, accurate descriptions of the assets of Milwaukee neighborhoods, particularly given the misleading, negative stereotypes promoted by a number of the largest data marketing firms.

    Randy Crump, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce Randy Crump, president of the Chamber, talked to Wisconsin Eye about the issues and successful initiatives addressing economic development. The NAACP Young Adult Committee has initiated "recycle the black dollar" campaigns to build support for local businesses and to raise awareness of the advantages of maximizing how long retail dollars remain in the community.

  • News coverage

    Community forum at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum MPTV/WUWM forum

    MPTV Fourth Street Forum
    "Black Men in Prison: Exploring the
    Crisis, Changing the Outcome"
    Forum logo

    WUWM Project Milwaukee
    breaking 6-month series
    Black men in prison logo

    BBC investigative story
    BBC magazine story

    WisconsinEye on job training, prison diversion, and driver's license policies
    WisconsinEye video

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel logo

  • James Causey of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tackles issues related to Wisconsin's mass incarceration of black males, including trauma among inmates and inner city youth, life sentences, unemployment, need for more drug treatment options, housing segregation, addressing homicides, and a proposed minority impact bill. See more listings.
  • John Pawasarat's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial on "Mass incarceration of black males must stop."
  • Our Issues Milwaukee, CW18 and My24
    Our Issues broadcast

    NPR logo

  • Cheryl Corley of National Public Radio talks to Pawasarat, District Attorney John Chisholm, a spokesperson for churches allied to reduce Wisconsin incarceration levels, and Milwaukee ex-offenders. Gene Demby of NPR highlights key issues. NPR "Tell Me More" interviewed Lena Taylor and Marc Mauer.

    WPR logo

  • The Kathleen Dunn Show of Wisconsin Public Radio with Pawasarat and Rev. Willie Briscoe talking about labor force needs of ex-offenders and community alternatives to incarceration.

  • Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee on sentencing and drug enforcement policies, impacts on central city neighborhoods, and workforce investment policies.

    WUWM logo

  • Pawasarat interview with Marge Pitrof on WUWM re importance of using workforce investment funds for ex-offenders.
  • Kenneth Harris, President of 100 Black Men, in WUWM interview supports entrepreneurship and education priorities for ex-offenders.
  • The Sentencing Project on "Wisconsin leads nation in black male incarceration rates"

    New logo Mass incarceration is a statewide problem

    An examination of public inmate files from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (1990-2012) found incarceration rates for African American men at epidemic levels throughout Wisconsin and not just in Milwaukee County. Statewide a third of African American men in their late 20s and half of the men in their 30s have already benn incarcerated in state correctional facilities. The Wisconsin voting-age population (i.e., those age 18 and above) is 86% white non-Hispanic.

    Among the workforce proposals presented are making African American males the state's #1 job priority (a "Marshall Plan" for impacted communities), restoring state school aids for driver's license education for teens, allowing removal of prison records from the circuit court website after sentences are completed, and monitoring racial profiling traffic stops.

    Do we need a "Milwaukee Plan"?

    In 1970 the Nixon Administration directed Milwaukee construction trade unions and contractors to develop a "Milwaukee Plan" to substantially increase training and employment of African Americans and Latinos in the building trades. This paper explores the features of the plan adopted and compares data to help assess whether a "Milwaukee Plan" is needed today.

    Report on income inequality among employed families

    The annual ETI analysis of state income tax data showed 12 to 1 differences in family income by Milwaukee County neighborhood in 2012. Working-age married and single families in innercity zipcode 53206 had average incomes of $20,260 while families in the "North Shore" suburban zipcode 53217 had income averaging $253,082.

    Educational opportunity and achievement gaps between children of wealth and children of poverty are profoundly influenced by these extreme differences in family resources. The tax data also showed a $17 million reduction in state earned income tax credit support for "working poor" families in the county after the 2011 state legislation cut EIC supports for families with more than one child.

    Urban Milwaukee article

    Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee
    on income inequality and retail sales

    Who's building Milwaukee?

    The Employment and Training Institute examination of EEO-1 reports filed by the largest construction firms in the Milwaukee area found an industry that is still struggling to recover from the economic recession and national housing crisis. African Americans hold less than 4% of jobs in these large firms and NO executive or senior management positions. Latinos similarly hold few blue collar jobs and none of the high level management positions. Engagement of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans will be essential for the coming-of-age labor force -- but appears to be a very low public policy priority.

    Who's training Milwaukee's builders?

    ETI's review of state records of construction trade apprenticeships showed only 65 African Americans and 53 Hispanics being trained in union apprenticeships and 10 African Americans and 16 Hispanics being trained in non-union apprenticeships in the Milwaukee area. Statewide, only 9 African Americans and 3 Hispanics are training as operating engineering apprentices. Women are underrepresented in all of the apprenticeship programs reviewed.

    It is recognized that it is very difficult for construction companies to hire and train apprentices while their experienced workers are on lay-off or only employed part-time. At the same time, there is a public interest in supporting training for the future construction industry workforce and in investments in increased participation of minorities, and particularly African American and Latino males, in the construction industry.

    Skills gap, job gap, or both?

    WUWM jobs forum Lois Quinn participated in a community forum on job skills and employment needs in Milwaukee, broadcast by WUWM's "Lake Effect." WUWM's Project Milwaukee: Help Wanted series explored various perspectives on job skills gap issues as well as the shortage of work for experienced laid-off workers.

    Using the driver's license for voter ID voting symbol

    The ETI voter ID study was used by Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan as one basis for a temporary injunction against Wisconsin's new voter identification law. Flanagan subsequently issued a permanent injunction against the law. A permanent injunction was also issued against Wisconsin's voter ID law by Circuit Court Judge Richard Niess, whose order maintains that the state legislature lacks the authority under Wisconsin's constitution to bar citizens from voting on the grounds that they lack a government-sanctioned photo ID.

    The 2005 ETI study of driver's license records for the state of Wisconsin found that in Milwaukee County among 18-24 year olds 58% of African American males and 57% of African American females lacked a driver's license as did 46% of Hispanic males and 61% of Hispanic females. In the "Wisconsin balance of state" (outside Milwaukee County) only 15% of white males and 15% of white females ages 18-24 lacked a license.

    An amicus brief for Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, a case currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, cites the ETI study findings that only 2% of college students living in residence halls [at Marquette, UW-Madison, and UW-Milwaukee] had driver's licenses bearing their dormitory addresses.

    Incarceration readings -- Wisconsin, national
  • Governor's Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System "Final Report", "Appendix" (2008), and resulting Executive Order 251.

  • National Academy of Sciences report on The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (2014)

    Academy Study

    "Prisons are part of a poverty trap, with many paths leading in, but few leading out." -- Bruce Western


  • Voices from Inside: Wisconsin Prisoners Speak Out (2013).

    "Working poor" single parent families, Wisconsin's cut in state EIC

    In 2011 the Wisconsin legislature reduced the state earned income tax credits for "working poor" families with 2 or more children. The brunt of these cuts fell on single parents in Milwaukee's inner city where tax credits fell by 26% in 2011. The ETI report on Income Changes for Single Families during the Recession is based on an analysis Wisconsin state income tax records for 2007 through 2011 for working age filers (married and single) with dependents. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on local and state concerns about the EIC reductions.

    Driver's license research

    driver's license report UNLICENSED TEENS: Over 12,000 Milwaukee teens ages 16-17 lack a driver's license or instruction permit even though the license is a critical asset for employment. Wisconsin has discontinued state aids for driver's education while requiring that school age youth participate in a school or commercial driving program as a condition for obtaining their license.

    SUSPENSIONS FOR FAILURE TO PAY fines/ forfeitures: Almost 24,000 Milwaukee County residents have driver's license suspensions solely for failure to pay fines and civil forfeitures Three-fourths of license suspensions in the county are for FPFs rather than for unsafe driving.

    License REVOCATIONS: Revocations to county residents have decreased by 2/3 since 2009 under state legislative reforms initiated by the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability (CDLRE).

    Driver's license STATUS: The highest numbers of unlicensed drivers with suspensions and revocations are African American men in their prime early working years. ETI reports have shown the driver license to be essential for getting and keeping employment and exceeding high school completion as a predictor of sustained employment. For more information, see the ETI driver's license webpage, the CDLRE website, and the Radio Milwaukee (88.9) community story on Ron Lee's adult driver education programs. The Governor's Minority Unemployment Task Force is supporting Milwaukee efforts to address license suspensions for failure to pay forfeitures.

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    Milwaukee Drill photo Milwaukee Drill photos are courtesy of Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporation.

    Employment and Training Institute
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    University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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    Milwaukee, WI 53203-2602

    Site by Lois Quinn, last updated 2014