Mass incarceration of black males must stop
Yet, most of the recent state policy discussions about preparing the Wisconsin workforce and debates over redistribution of government job training dollars have largely ignored African-American men and relegated ex-offender populations to a minor (if not invisible) place in Wisconsin's labor force.
To assist in local workforce investment planning, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute examined two decades of state Department of Corrections and Department of Transportation files to assess employment and training barriers facing African-American men with a history of DOC offenses and DOT violations. The results were alarming.
• State DOC records show incarceration rates at epidemic levels for African-American males in Milwaukee County. More than half of African-American men in their 30s and half of black men in their early 40s have been incarcerated in state correctional facil ities.
• Wisconsin's prison population has more than tripled since 1990, fueled by increased government funding for drug enforcement (rather than treatment), investments in prison construction, three-strikes rules, mandatory minimum sentence laws, truth-in-sentencing replacing judicial discretion in setting punishments, concentrated policing in minority communities and state incarceration for minor probation and supervision violations. Particularly affected were African-American males, with 40% of black male prisoners showing drug offenses.
• Notably, 26,222 African-American men from Milwaukee County have been or are currently incarcerated in state correctional facilities. A third of those incarcerated have only non-violent offenses.
• Given the high levels of racial and economic segregation in Milwaukee County, two-thirds of the county's incarcerated black men came from six ZIP codes in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. The ability of ex-offenders to help support their families is very limited for many released inmates when ex-offenders return to inner city neighborhoods with extremely large job gaps (i.e., 25 to 1 in May 2009) between the number of active job seekers compared to available full-time work.
• The driver's license is essential for getting to job sites and for avoiding arrests for illegal driving, yet only 10% of African-American men with DOC incarceration records showed a current valid Wisconsin driver's license with no recent suspensions or revocations.
• From 1990 to 2012, the African-American men from Milwaukee County were imprisoned for over 42.6 million days (or almost 117,000 years) at a cost in 2012 prices of $91 a day, totaling $3.38 billion. In 2012, the state was spending over a half-million dollars a day to incarcerate African-American men from Milwaukee County.
Based on our research findings, I would offer the following recommendations for immediate consideration:
• Changes in laws contributing to mass incarceration of lower-risk offenders and alternatives to imprisonment are critically needed with the focus on increasing public safety, supporting employment and strengthening families. Proposals brought forward by religious groups, the Milwaukee County district attorney, The Sentencing Project and others to reduce Wisconsin's levels of incarceration deserve serious consideration.
• Technical violators of probation rules should be diverted, whenever appropriate, to community supervision to allow employed ex-offenders to continue working.
• Transitional jobs programs for released inmates and for offenders diverted from incarceration are needed in communities with high unemployment and job gaps.
• Programs, including Windows to Work, to address re-entry and workforce needs are currently operated by the Department of Corrections, Workforce Investment Boards and nonprofit organizations but serve only a small portion of those in need. These should be expanded and tested for their effectiveness.
• Recognizing that there is no quick fix for ex-offender populations, the cost savings from reductions in the prison population should be used to fund employment and training programs for those in and out of corrections and to support programs to assist those without driver's licenses, an essential employment credential.
• Restoration and repair of the driver's license for current prisoners and released ex-offenders with fixable problems should be a priority. Those unable to secure or repair their license should be given assistance obtaining a state photo ID.
• Driver's license recovery programs also should be supported for the 27,874 non-offender African-American men in Milwaukee County with driver's license violations (many for failure to pay fines and civil forfeitures) preventing them from legally driving to employment.
• Black male youth approaching adulthood should be a top priority for employment training, job placement and driver's license programs. Without such investments, the population incarcerated will likely only increase and public safety problems escalate in the future.
• State aids funding free driver's education should be reinstated in school districts where the families of more than half of the students are poor or near poor to advance the engagement of low-income youth in the labor force.
The levels of black male incarceration represent a huge loss of labor force talent for the community and have devastating impacts on Milwaukee children and families. Without effective workforce, driver's license and education supports, we could lose yet another generation of young black men. State and local officials need to address this largely ignored workforce population.
John Pawasarat is director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute. Read the ETI study on "Wisconsin's Mass Incarceration of African American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013" at www4.uwm.edu/eti/2013/BlackImprisonment.pdf