Wisconsin leads U.S. in imprisonment rates of Black people

The Sentencing Project notes that Wisconsin is followed by Oklahoma, Idaho and Montana, all states with low Black populations.

The state of Wisconsin has earned an unfortunate new distinction. Known for dairy farming and cheese making, the state could now be known as the leader in imprisoning its Black residents.

A new report from The Sentencing Project notes that Black people account for 42% of the state’s prison population — the highest rate in the nation — while only making up only 6% of its total population.

A demonstrator protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year to march against police brutality following the death of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back last August in front of his three children by a Kenosha police officer. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“For many years, Milwaukee has been one of the top segregated areas in the country by most measures,” Larry Dupuis, legal director of the American Civil Union of Wisconsin, told NBC News, “It has a long history that persists today because of deeply entrenched residential housing segregation. I think that plays a significant role in how this ends up playing out into these huge disparities by race in the criminal justice system.”

Approximately 65% of Black residents of Wisconsin live in Milwaukee County. Dupuis added that police occupation of Black and brown neighborhoods leads to increased surveillance and the increased likelihood of arrest.

Dupuis said racism is entrenched in the state’s legal system, noting that officers are less likely to arrest white people, and prosecutors are less likely to charge them versus Black Wisconsinites.


Additionally, economic injustice in the state contributes to the incarceration disparities, with Blacks less likely to be able to pay for adequate legal representation, which could mean the difference between imprisonment and not serving time.

Dupuis noted that reclassifying some acts as no longer criminal, as well as police oversight, could positively impact the statistics.

The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic and gender justice. The Sentencing Project report was authored by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., a senior research analyst with the organization.

Nellis told NBC News that it will require “bold action” to reverse the inequity in Wisconsin. She recommends “eliminating mandatory sentencing minimums for drug crimes and pushing governments to mandate racial impact statements, meaning lawmakers must forecast how every criminal justice law would impact demographic groups.”

The Sentencing Project notes that Wisconsin is followed by Oklahoma, Idaho and Montana, all states with low Black populations.

Nationally, Black Americans are still incarcerated at five times the rate of whites.

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