Linda Hoskins, NAACP – Madison president, said she used to call public defenders “public pretenders” — but not anymore.
With U.S. Census data showing that more than 12 percent of all black men in Wisconsin are currently incarcerated, more than double the national average, Hoskins said public defenders are not encouraging black men to take plea bargains as they often did in the past.
“The office has changed with Miss [Kelli] Thompson, [the appointed state public defender] coming in, and I see a great change in African Americans not being incarcerated, but then you have this big, corrupted Department of Corrections that are sending people to prison because they are black, uneducated and can’t afford an attorney,” Hoskins said.
Compared to other states, Wisconsin has the highest percentage of black men in prison in the country, according to a 2013 report by the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Oklahoma comes in second place, with 9.7 percent, the report said.
The report, conducted by ETI director John Pawasarat and researcher Lois M. Quinn, also looked at workforce issues facing black men specifically in the Milwaukee area such as driver’s licensing issues, incarceration and transportation barriers.
“The ranking [as highest in the country] was very much of a surprise because we knew the problem was a serious one, but we thought it was the same as other metropolitan areas in the country,” Pawasarat said.
Hoskins said the Department of Corrections is not doing enough to give black men the life skills they need when they get out of prison.
Hoskins added the stereotypes of black men with records do not make life out of prison equal and fair for them.
“People do not get rehab in prison, they are put in there and they sit there,” Hoskins said. “I know people who have been there for 25 years who are waiting on classes to take. And because it’s so long, they become handicapped.”
Hoskins said other factors like poverty and education often correlate with incarceration rates in the black community.
According to the report, of the African-Americans living in Milwaukee, 40 percent are below the poverty line, more than 24 percent are unemployed and 47 percent don’t have a driver’s license, making it difficult to get to jobs outside of mass transportation lines.
Pawasarat said having a license is important not only to drive to a job, but to obtain a job first.
“[The jobs] are in outlying areas of eastern Waukesha county and industrial parks on the northwest sides, and if you can’t get to those areas, you have a very small labor market,” Pawasarat said. “If you’re coming out as an African-American male, and an ex-prisoner, and most likely not to have a high school education, you have almost no chance in obtaining employment.”
Hoskins also said she believes black men are unfairly treated during all stages of the court process, including the police, jury, judge and the system in general.
“In Wisconsin, there has never been fair and equal justice here,” Hoskins said. “You see older white men, or sometimes females on the jury, and there’s a lot of fear.”
Pawasarat said additional policy issues such as the three-strike rules or mandatory sentences are continually being pushed by politicians, but only create a huge prison population.
Pawasarat added the new policy measures don’t create a bright future for urban African-Americans.
“I guarantee you it’s going to make things worse than they were, with three-strike and mandatory sentences,” Pawasarat said. “I don’t see any hope for this generation of young African-American males.”
Dana Brueck, communications officer for the Department of Justice, said her agency could not comment on the report because no one has reviewed it.
The Department of Corrections did not return calls or emails.