Criminal justice system finds kids of color

Staff/news services; capital TimesJanuary 13, 2007
Nonwhite youths in Wisconsin are far more likely than whites to have contacts with the criminal justice system - from arrest to sentencing - a new report has found.
The state data far exceeded national averages revealed in the report titled "And Justice for Some" by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a criminal justice research organization. The report was released Friday.
In it, Wisconsin led the nation in some categories and was near the highest in some others, said Barry Krisberg, president of the group that issued the report.
Gov. Jim Doyle will announce his plans Monday to appoint a commission to reduce lockup rates among nonwhites, especially blacks, said Doyle spokesman Matt Canter.
He won't find any guidance in the report. The Oakland, Calif.-based group stopped short of offering ideas for change, saying only that it is time for a nationwide effort to identify the causes and work to improve the system.
Krisberg said the report was meant to spur a discussion in communities and states across the country. It would be difficult to identify solutions that would work for all parts of the country, he said.
"This is not an issue where one-size-fits-all works," he said. "How you solve this in Milwaukee is different from how it works in L.A."
Krisberg said over the years that three key issues have been identified: the quality of legal representation for poor kids; whether the system is using objective rather than subjective decision-making; and whether communities invest in programs to assist youth where they live.
Pam Oliver, head of the Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the report's statistics are similar to what she and others have found in studying incarceration rates in Wisconsin. The state the highest rate of imprisonment for black adults in the country.
"So the fact that youths are getting waived into adult court at very high rates is in the same ballpark as that," she said in an interview Friday.
Oliver said a number of factors appear to be involved, including higher rates of poverty among blacks than whites and increased policing of high-crime and poor neighborhoods, which tend to be predominantly black.
Increased policing, in turn, is more likely to lead to arrests for low-level crimes than in areas where police are more sparse, she said.
"Lots of kids engage in crimes when it comes to disorderly conduct, theft, and getting into fights with people," she said, but blacks are more likely to be nabbed by police and punished.
In Dane County, she noted, black youths tend to have contact with the juvenile justice system at a much earlier age and for less serious offenses than their white counterparts.
"The thing is, once you have a prior offense, you get treated more harshly the next time you get caught, so this policing of low-level offenses can give you a record," she said.
Oliver added that other statistics showed that white youths charged with a felony in Dane County "were more likely to get out of it." She said that could be because white parents are more likely to seek and receive help to get their children back on track.
"And I think the majority-white population has a differential response when it's their own kids" who are in trouble "than if it's kids who are from some other social group."
Between 2002 and 2004, nationally blacks were 16 percent of those under age 18 but accounted for 28 percent of juvenile arrests, the report showed. They became even more over-represented farther along in the process.
Blacks represented 30 percent of referrals to juvenile court, 37 percent of the detained population and 58 percent of youths admitted to adult prisons, according to the report.
Nationwide, blacks, Latinos, American Indians and Asians were placed in residential custody at a rate 3.1 times that of whites, the report showed.
In Wisconsin the rate was 10.3 times, the highest in the country.
Wisconsin also led the nation for the rate of blacks under 18 sent to adult prisons.
The report showed that the rate of black young people in Wisconsin sent to adult prison was 154 per 100,000, which compared to the national average of 44.1 per 100,000. The next highest state was Oregon at 142.6 per 100,000.
Wisconsin also had the highest rate of Latino youth sent to adult prison at 50.8 per 100,000, far ahead of the national average of 7.4. The next highest behind Wisconsin was North Carolina at 33.1 per 100,000.
The findings also showed that nationwide, black young people were held in detention at 4.5 times the rate of whites and Latinos were detained 2.3 times the rate of whites.
In Wisconsin the disparity was even higher. Blacks were detained at a rate 18.4 times that of whites, behind only South Dakota (47 times) and North Dakota (21.2 times). Latinos in Wisconsin were 3.9 times more likely to be in detention, tying with Utah for 12th highest in the country.
Madison mayoral candidate Peter Munoz, who is on leave from his job as executive director of Centro Hispano, said he believes the higher incarceration rates for young Latinos reflects that many are "completely disenfranchised. They don't feel they belong to the majority," and as a result may be more likely to commit crimes.
"A lot of people would say there's discrimination, but a lot of youths are involved in bad behavior. They're more noticeable and the fear factor is greater, so (authorities) may want to respond with harsher penalties," he said.

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