April 17, 2008

 

Correcting Racial Disparities in Wisconsin
Drug Sentencing is Goal

Madison-- Now that the Federal government has made major corrections to racial disparities in cocaine sentencing, it is time for Wisconsin to step up and make similar reforms in sentencing practices at the state level, according to Senator Lena C. Taylor (D-Milwaukee).

The recent implementation of revised federal standards allowing offenders to petition for reduced sentences stemmed from a decades-long practice of giving much longer prison sentences to those with crack cocaine convictions than those with powder cocaine.  For example, someone convicted of possessing one gram of crack cocaine would receive the same sentence as someone with 100 grams of the powder version.  It is an established fact that crack dealers are usually black and powder cocaine dealers are usually white.

“Wisconsin’s lack of a sentencing commission has compelled the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Joint Review Committee on Criminal Penalties to fill the vacuum,” said Taylor.  “We will have to become the vehicle for reform in Wisconsin.  When people are convicted of the same crime, they should receive that same punishment.

“Although we haven’t had the same 1 to 100 ratio as established practice in Wisconsin, the result of cocaine convictions has produced the same racial disparity in Wisconsin prisons,” said Taylor.  Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency, have recently recognized the basic unfairness of practices of locking up black offenders for longer periods and for smaller amounts of drugs than their white counterparts. 

In Wisconsin, for example, among prison inmates convicted of felony class G drug offences—possession of less than 1 gram—79 percent are black and only 14 percent are white.  While African Americans and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, African Americans are ten times more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses.

Researchers attributed disparate policing practices, disparate treatment before the courts, mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, and differences in the availability of drug treatment for African Americans compared with whites as reasons for the significant racial disparities seen in drug imprisonment rates.

“We do not want to do anything that would enable hardened criminals to get shorter sentences,” cautioned Taylor.  “Our first job is public safety.  But we do want the same sentencing standards applied even-handedly across the board.”