May 6, 2008

Racial Disparities

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

The other day, two national watchdog groups released studies confirming what most of us already knew: Wisconsin’s justice system has an epidemic of racial disparities.  According to Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, Wisconsin has the highest racial disparity in drug sentences in the nation.  Among major U.S. cities, Milwaukee ranks second in racial disparity for drug arrests.

In the past few years, Wisconsin’s begun to make progress on this issue.  This past legislative session, for example, the governor set up a Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities.  The Commission was established to shine a light on a problem that, for too long, our state had ignored.  I had the privilege of testifying before the Commission, as did hundreds of judges, lawyers, former inmates, professors, and anyone else who inclined to speak out.  All of us were excited that, finally, the people of Wisconsin had a chance to see this problem for what it is: Something that significantly affects us all, regardless of who we are or where we live. 

For all its promise, though, the Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities came up short in some areas.  Where it could have recommended substantial, long-term reform, the Commission, instead, recommended the sort of minor changes that have typified the last 20 years in Wisconsin’s justice system.  The recommendations were steps in the right direction, but they were baby steps.  And, if the numbers from Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project tell us anything, it’s that Wisconsin can’t afford any more baby steps; we need to start taking leaps.

Taking leaps means considering alternatives to incarceration.  In a system that’s inherently unfair, it means finding ways to solve problems outside the system.  Instead of prison, we need to look at things like drug courts, treatment programs, and rehabilitative checkups.  Not only do these alternatives generally work better than incarceration when it comes to drug offenders, but they also come at a substantial savings to Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

Beyond just changing the way we prosecute drug offenders, though, research says we need to rethink the way we pursue drug enforcement.  Most of the drug use in Wisconsin is by white people, but the overwhelming majority of drug arrests involve black people.  Those facts suggest uneven enforcement, a diagnosis borne out in the two reports released earlier this week.  If that’s the case, we need to consider what purpose our current enforcement strategies serve, and whether it’s worth the disparities they lead to.

This is a serious issue that deserves serious solutions.  We can’t afford any more running in place.  As Chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, and Housing, I’m committed to bringing this issue front and center in the coming legislative session.  Our communities can’t afford anything less.