Why Are So Many Black Men Behind Bars In Wisconsin?

African-American men in Wisconsin are incarcerated at a rate that's nearly twice the national average, according to a new study. To find out what's behind the staggering numbers, host Michel Martin speaks with Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor, and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are going to start the program today with some conversations about crime and justice. In a few minutes we're going to talk about a very disturbing story out of India where a brutal attack on a little girl has caused many people there to ask themselves some hard questions. We speak with columnist and author Anand Giridharadas in a just a few minutes.

But we start closer to home and the debate over whether we might be actually locking up too many people here for transgressions that might be better dealt with another way. That conversation is sparked by concerns about whether a high incarceration rate is causing unintended and destructive consequences. Well, that's the national conversation, but today we are going to focus on Wisconsin.

Because there is a new study from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee that the incarceration rate for African-American males is a staggering 12.8 percent. That is the highest in the country and almost double the national average. Needless to say, we wanted to talk about why that might be. So we've called upon Wisconsin state Senator Lena Taylor. She represents Wisconsin's fourth senate district which includes a zip code in Milwaukee that's labeled ground zero for black male incarceration.

This, by the authors of the study. Also with us is Marc Mauer. He's from the Sentencing Project. That's an advocacy group that works for prison reform. He's also the author most recently of "Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling." Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARC MAUER: Great to be here. Thanks, Michel.

STATE SENATOR LENA TAYLOR: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now Marc Mauer, you've been looking at this issue nationally for quite some time. When you saw these numbers from Wisconsin were you surprised?

MAUER: Well, they are shocking. You know, as high as the national numbers are, the fact that Wisconsin leads the nation, is so much higher than other states, certainly causes us to be concerned, I think. Yeah.

MARTIN: But why might that be?

MAUER: Well, I think, you know, we've known - we've learned in recent decades that the number of people in prison is not necessarily related directly to the crime rate. Much of that is related to policy and practiced decision. So are there elements of what's going on in Wisconsin that may contribute to disproportionate rates of black male incarceration?

MARTIN: Senator Taylor, you're based in Milwaukee, as we said. According to this study, more than half the African-American men in their 30s and 40s either have been or are currently in prison. And I have to ask you, is this something that is talked about? Is that something that is kind of known and understood, even if it wasn't known and understood by people who live elsewhere?

TAYLOR: Michel, I'm a lawyer. I'm a legislator. I'm an African-American. I live in the district that in particular has ground zero. Not only is it talked about, you see the disparities that exist throughout the system, whether it starts at policing all the way through resources, prosecution, you know, defense availability, sentencing, so thus through the judges. You've seen the disparities that exist across the board.

There have been study after study after study, that talks about the issue. So when you asked the question earlier of whether or not one was surprised, I would argue that I'm not necessarily surprised. I've been beating this drum. It's why I felt a tug to always be involved in criminal justice matters and reform in this state. And so we have heard the information. The issue is exactly what are we doing to address all of the places that create the trajectory that you see that is shocking.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, the crime rate in your district is not twice that of the rest of the country. So do you agree with Marc Mauer that this is really about policy? It's not that the crime there is so out of control that that would lead to this kind of result?

TAYLOR: I would agree that it is not only about policy but it also about discretion.

MARTIN: Hmm. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What do you mean by that?

TAYLOR: If you look in...

MARTIN: Can you paint a picture for us?

TAYLOR: Yes, ma'am. If you look in sentencing, for example, there are reports that show that there are disparities in the types of sentencing that happens for individuals of color. If you look in the trends that happen in prosecution you can see that. If you look at the studies that are talked about in regards to availability of access to representation that the state bar has done, you can see who that touches.

And then lastly, when you look at right now we're being investigated federally and our police department has had many issues that have been systemic over the years, related to issues with the African-American community. So I'm saying that there are a number of things but by all means, at the root and deeply within what happens are the policies that have been done.

So I agree with Marc. I'm just saying that that, coupled with a number of things, is what makes us the leader in the nation with such horrific numbers.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the disproportionately high incarceration rate of African-American men in Wisconsin. It turns out that the rate there is twice the national average. With us are Wisconsin state senator Lena Taylor. She represents the district that's called ground zero in that state, for the high incarceration rate.

Also with us Mar Mauer with the Sentencing Project. Marc, I'm going to ask you to pick up the thread here. The incarceration rate for white men in Wisconsin is actually a hair below the rate for white men nationally. So it sort of jumps out again when you see that the rate for black men is that much higher than the national average.

And we've been, you know, asking online in response to our - in preparation for this conversation. And there are a lot of commentators who suggested, well, that's just that African-American men are simply committing more crimes. So what's your response to that?

MAUER: Well, it's quite possible that in some situations there are higher rates of crime, but that's only part of the explanation for what we generally see. You know, probably in recent decades the most substantial change in producing high incarceration has been the war on drugs for the last 25 years.

And the one thing we know about that is that it's had a very disproportionate effect on communities of color. Drug use and abuse cuts across lines of race and class, but drug law enforcement has been very concentrated in disadvantaged communities.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, according to the study 40 percent of the African-American males from Milwaukee County who were incarcerated since 1990 are drug offenders. But, again, why would this lead to, number one, this racial disparity; and number two, these very high numbers? I mean, can you help me see it? Like, how might this play out in day to day life, Marc?

MAUER: Well, I think it's decisions made by law enforcement and political officials. You know, you have a certain level of drug abuse in a community. Do you go after the major importers bringing drugs in that community or do you have a zero tolerance policy where any kid on the street corner who's smoking a joint gets picked up? And depending on those situations, depending on what kind of diversion programs you have available will say a lot about what the prison population looks like and what the composition of that population is.

MARTIN: Senator...

TAYLOR: If I may, Michel...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Senator Taylor. Sure.

TAYLOR: ...pick up on that.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

TAYLOR: That's going exactly to what I was saying. That the policing concept, where you put the magnifying glass to be able to look closely to see behavior that may or may not be appropriate or within parameters. And then the magnifying glass to say with those people who have those issues, how are they dealt with?

Are they dealt with, with diversions? With treatment? With resources? Or are they dealt with in the prison system? And then when individuals go within, what kind of services are - what kind of sentences do they get? And then what kind of services do they get when they go in and when they come out? And so what we've learned is that we have a system that's broken on the resources that we provide to avoid revocations, to help people who are reentering so that we can change our trajectory.

MARTIN: You know, Senator, can I interrupt you? Sorry. We're almost out - we have like about four minutes left.

TAYLOR: No problem. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: I just wanted to - the study talks a lot about the impact on driver's licenses and...

TAYLOR: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: ...that the authors say - they say this several times - they say that once this incarceration cycle starts the difficulty in obtaining driver's licenses then has this knock on effect that they believe leads to more imprisonment. Can you explain that?

TAYLOR: Yes. In particular, if the person has a drug offense at one point it would've had a direct effect on whether or not they could get a driver's license. So there has been some reform in the driver's license laws and whether or not they automatically you lose your license if you had certain drug offenses or something before.

So there's been substantial driver's license changes. Then the other issue is if you don't have a driver's license and the jobs are in communities that don't have transportation services to get you there and you have to drive, and you don't have a license, then now you are kind of cut off on whether or not you can actually get employment. So that's, I think, the cycle that they're trying to talk about there, and that, as a result, the person now, if you can't get a job and you're reentering, then what happens? Do you end up being put in a position to be facing revocation?

MARTIN: Marc Mauer, a final question to you. Clearly, as we said at the beginning, this is not a situation that's only tied to Wisconsin. The study says that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far ahead of Rwanda, Cuba and Russia. In the short time we have left, can you tell us why you think that matters? Recognizing that you are an advocate with a point of view, but there are those who would say, well, you know, so what? I mean, there's a reason that, you know, you incarcerate people, because they've committed crimes that we deem that we should remove them from the community. Why do you argue - consistently argue that this is not a good thing?

MAUER: Well, you know, there are...

TAYLOR: Well, first of all...

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry. I was asking Marc that question.

TAYLOR: Oh, I'm sorry. My fault.

MAUER: You know, there are some people who think that our rate of incarceration is due to individual failings. There are some who think it's because of socioeconomic disparities. Regardless of one's point of view, this is not something we should be proud of, that the world's wealthiest nation also has the highest rate of incarceration.

It clearly is an indication we're failing at some point, and I think it behooves us to try to understand where this comes from and to try to engage in proactive efforts to try to stem this problem.

MARTIN: Senator, I'll give you the final thought. Why is this a problem? Why is this a bad thing? Because there are those who would argue that it's fine, if this is making society more safe. It's unfortunate. It might be expensive, but if this is the price we have to pay for a safer society, then fine. Why do you think this is a problem?

TAYLOR: It's costly. It can be done better. What we have to always do - as Americans and as leaders - is what can we do better? How can we look at the issue and figure out how we can change it? We don't need to incarcerate everyone. There are some individuals we do need to incarcerate, but nonviolent offenders, there may be another way, and we know it is. And we see those best practices in places like Texas and Kansas and other places that have used the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to work. And we have that in Wisconsin, and then the Republicans actually pulled that back. And now, two years later, we're looking at - you know, less than two years later, we're looking at the kind of trajectory that says that we lead in the nation.

And so, if we lead in the nation, and the nation leads in the world, what does that say about where Wisconsin is on this issue? And so I think we should not want to lead in this place. We should want to do better.

MARTIN: That was Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor. She was with us from Milwaukee. Also with us, Marc Mauer from the Sentencing Project. That's an advocacy group that works to reduce the rate of incarceration. His latest book is called "Race to Incarcerate." That's actually a graphic novel, a graphic retelling - it's not a novel - of this issue. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MAUER: Thanks for having us.

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