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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Here's one more way that America is number one. Our prison population is still the largest in the world - more than a million and a half people behind bars. Black men are more likely to be sent to prison than white men, often for drug offenses. And a study from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee looked at that state's incarceration rates and found they were the highest in the country for black men. NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled to Milwaukee and has this report.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The University of Wisconsin researchers say their analysis was truly eye-opening. They found that Wisconsin's 13 percent incarceration rate for black men was nearly double the country's rate.

JOHN PAWASARAT: We were so far above everybody else. That just sort of stunned us when we saw that.

CORLEY: Professor John Pawasarat studied two decades of Wisconsin prison and employment data. He found that nearly one in eight black men of working age in Milwaukee County had served some time in the state's correctional facilities.

PAWASARAT: The explosion really took place in the year 2000 to 2008, where mandatory sentencing - three strikes - was put in place. And it more than tripled the population in just a few years.

CORLEY: Which meant about half of the black men in their 30s or early 40s in Milwaukee County would've spent time in the state's correctional facilities and two-thirds of the men come from the six poorest zip codes in Milwaukee. At Project Return in Milwaukee, some of those men show up for weekly alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs.

Here they get a chance to talk about mistakes they've made, troubles finding work, and problems with probation officers. Thirty-five-year-old Darnell Brown and 27-year-old Daniel White say African-American men get constant reminders about serving time.

DARNELL BROWN: Every black man in here that get pulled over right now, there's a standard protocol that the officers asks you. You got a driver's license? And are you on probation? That's the - that's the automatic thing they ask you.

DANIEL WHITE: Or it's also when they look your name up and see your charges, they automatically: You got any dope or guns in the car? (Unintelligible)

BROWN: And it's so funny to me. And it's like the more you cooperate, the more intimidating it looks like the system gets.

CORLEY: About 40 percent of the black men in Milwaukee County get locked up for low level drug offenses. Leroy Johnson says that's why he cycled in and out of prison for years.

LEROY JOHNSON: Every time I get revocated, it'd be for smoking marijuana. When I went to my last program, I told them I'm not coming back here no more. I'll probably die in prison if I go back again. But that's me. I just can't.

CORLEY: Wisconsin prison officials refused to talk to NPR for this story, but John Chisholm, Milwaukee County District Attorney, has argued for modifying the state's mandatory minimum sentencing policies. He says crimes and prosecutions have dropped dramatically since 2010. He also says it's too simple to suggest that Wisconsin's incarceration rate for African-American men is the nation's highest because blacks commit more crimes.

JOHN CHISHOLM: Our incarceration rate is high not necessarily because of the number of offenses that are being committed and the number of prosecutions. What's driving our incarceration rate is failure under supervision. If you're placing somebody on long terms of supervision without a lot of meaningful conditions, then there's a lot of opportunity to mess that up.

And if they do that, at least in Wisconsin, they go back for the entire time.

CORLEY: Chisholm concedes that studies have shown there are racial disparities when it comes to who goes to prison for low level drug offenses. He says his office has set up programs like drug and treatment alternatives which have kept thousands of offenders out of prison. Back at Project Return, leader Clem Richardson and the other men say there's an even more urgent need.

CLEM RICHARDSON: We need jobs. Am I right?

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Yes.

RICHARDSON: We need training. And we need education. These men will work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Education.

RICHARDSON: Which a lot of them do learn while they're incarcerated. Just when they come back out here, they don't have nothing out here for them. And so you see the mass incarceration rate of them with the high recidivism rate, returning back because of what's going on.

CORLEY: The revelation of the dramatic rate of black male incarceration in Wisconsin has energized a coalition of churches working to reduce it. The effort is called the Eleven by Fifteen Campaign. Spokesperson Kathy Walker, whose brother served time, says the campaign aims to cut the number of imprisoned in Wisconsin by half, to 11,00 inmates by 2015.

KATHY WALKER: We are working hard to get money for transitional jobs. We are doing grants trying to help. We're trying to empower them to do better. We are the Paul Reveres. That's what we are. We are getting the word out there: Get ready. Get ready because this is going to change. One neighborhood at a time, but it's going to change.

CORLEY: Walker says the coalition is not only hopeful, but dedicated in the mission to stop the state's mass incarceration of black men, and to prevent more people - regardless of race - from getting locked up in Wisconsin's prisons and jails.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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