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Why Does Wisconsin Lock Up More Black Men Than Any Other State?

About 1 in 8 black men of working age (13 percent) are in state prisons or jails. The national average is 6.7 percent.
Dan Bannister
About 1 in 8 black men of working age (13 percent) are in state prisons or jails. The national average is 6.7 percent.

What is going on in Wisconsin?

A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that looked at the prison population there found that the state has the highest percentage of incarcerated black men in the country. About 1 in 8 black men of working age (13 percent) are in state prisons or jails. The national average is 6.7 percent.

According to census figures, African-Americans make up 6.5 percent of the state's population.

Wisconsin also leads the nation in the percentage of Native men behind bars; 1 in 13 Indian men are incarcerated there.

Wisconsin, though? Really?

And Wisconsin's lead on this count is pretty big: It beats the state with the next-highest rate of imprisoned black men by nearly 3 percentage points — a gap bigger than the total distance between the second- and 10th-place states.

A big chunk of the state's black male prison population comes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin's biggest city. According to the researchers, more than half of all black men in their 30s and 40s had been incarcerated at some point. That means there's a large population of men in the state's biggest city who are essentially unemployable, which puts a huge drag on the economy — and a big reason Milwaukee is one of the poorest big cities in the country. (Milwaukee's metro area also boasts one of the biggest gaps in incomes between blacks and whites.)

And Milwaukee's poor felons are concentrated in the same neighborhoods: The study also found that almost two-thirds of Milwaukee County's incarcerated black men come from the city's six poorest ZIP codes.

"I do think that a lot of it has to do with sentencing policy," said Jeanne Geraci, who runs the Benedict Center, a Milwaukee-based organization that advocates for community-based responses to criminal justice. Geraci said that the state has a much more aggressive stance to incarceration; Minnesota, which has similar demographics and crime rates, has a prison population half the size of Wisconsin's prison population.

UPDATE: A commenter wondered if it might be helpful to know what kinds of crimes the people in Milwaukee County were being incarcerated for committing the breakdown of incarceration in Wisconsin between various racial groups. These are good points, so we're adding some of that contextualizing info from the study.

Here's some of it, which looks back at Milwaukee County's recent history.


You can also take a look at the bar graph from the study showing the relative rates of incarceration of men by race both in Wisconsin and nationally. The rate of black male incarceration in Wisconsin is 12.8 percent and 6.7 percent nationally; the rate of Native male incarceration is 7.6 percent in Wisconsin and 3.1 percent nationally; 1.7 percent for Latino men in Wisconsin and 2.0 percent nationally, and 1.2 for white men in Wisconsin and 1.3 nationally.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.