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UW-Eau Claire professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton speaks at the Justice 4 George Floyd and BLM Eau Claire Community Rally on June 4, 2020, in Owen Park.

CHIPPEWA FALLS — A new national report says that 1 in every 36 Black residents in Wisconsin is incarcerated, the highest rate in the nation.

Washington D.C.-based The Sentencing Project released their findings last week, showing that Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons five times higher than white Americans. Latinx Americans are also incarcerated at 1.3 times the rate of their white counterparts. Nationally, 1 in every 81 Black U.S. residents are incarcerated.

In Wisconsin, 2,742 per 100,000 Black residents are incarcerated, compared to 230 per 100,000 white residents, the highest in the nation. The national average is 1,240 per 100,000 Black residents incarcerated, compared to 261 per 100,000 white Americans.

The report offers recommended changes, such as eliminating mandatory sentences for all crimes, decriminalizing low-level drug offenses, and requiring prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes.

Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a UW-Eau Claire history professor, wasn’t surprised by the findings of the study, and also wasn’t surprised Wisconsin ranked at the bottom.

“Wisconsin wants to think it’s not Louisiana, but in terms of how it treats its urban population and its rural population, it really is,” Ducksworth-Lawton said.

She endorsed the report’s recommended changes to reduce Black incarceration rates.

“We are an over-regulated state, and the way those regulations are enforced are more in urban areas,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “The war on drugs have been overly-apportioned to multi-cultural people. They need to change the sentencing laws, and that’s the truth. They are draconian. We want to see fewer people put in jail for stupid stuff. We’ve created an excessive amount of felonies for things that shouldn’t be felonies.”

Ducksworth-Lawton said another problem is judges don’t have enough discretion to impose lighter sentences on minor offenses.

“The law gets misused against people who can’t defend themselves,” she said. “You want to save prison for people who are violent.”

Ducksworth-Lawton was highly critical of the Milwaukee Police Department, saying reforms are needed there. High-profile arrests like that of Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown caught national attention, but she said there are numerous other examples that fly under the radar.

“There is a problem with disparage treatment in Milwaukee, and over-regulation,” she said. “It’s that kind of mentality, that we’ll arrest them first, and worry about the rest later.”

Ducksworth-Lawton said more officer training is needed as well.

“The more training a police officer has, the less bias they show,” she said. “I wish Milwaukee police would come up here and train with officers from up here.”

Public defender Kirby Harless noted that a 2013 UW-Milwaukee study, after the 2010 census, showed the state had the largest percentage of Black residents incarcerated.

“There has not been a whole lot that has changed since that time so unfortunately it is not that surprising,” Harless said. “Wisconsin has struggled with racial equity in the criminal justice system for quite awhile.”

Harless said he has seen examples of over-incarceration in his work as a defense attorney.

“While I can’t talk about specific cases, certainly when a system produces results you can see it and you need to be aware of it as an attorney,” Harless said. “The systematic nature means that people are more likely to have early police contact, live in heavily policed areas and develop a record that is then used to argue for more serious penalties. You also have to be aware of how people may respond to your client based on preconceptions.”

Harless said the state needs to treat this as a real problem, and to study what impact a law will have on society.

“We also need to take a serious look at how long the penalties are for crimes. When you are sitting next to someone, sitting next to their kids or their parents and you hear a sentence of (blank) years that feels different than reading it in a Facebook comment section,” Harless said. One of the things I hate about my job is explaining to a kid that they are not going to get to have a Dad for long stretches to all of their childhood.”

The Sentencing Project report concludes that changes are needed immediately.

“If we continue to ignore or tolerate these disparities, the United States is unlikely to achieve the serious, sustainable reforms that are needed to end mass incarceration,” the report states. “Overall, the pace of criminal justice reform has been too slow as well as too modest in its goals. Accelerated reforms that deliberately incorporate the goal of racial justice will lead to a system that is both much smaller and fairer.”

To read the full report, visit sentencingproject.org.