Forty percent of the inmates in our county jail are black, yet African Americans make up just 6% of Dane County's population.
Last week, a crowd of more than 200 marched downtown in response to events in Ferguson, Mo., where a grand jury declined to indict a white officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. The march, organized by the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, began on State Street and ended on the steps of the City-County Building.
While many attendees were focused on what happens in the initial encounter between officers and young black men, the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition made note of another alarming problem with our criminal justice system -- the mass incarceration of young black men.
There has been a lot of talk about this recently and it needs to stay on our radar until something is done about it. Wisconsin jails more of its young black men than any other state in the country. City, county and state policies have created an environment that breaks up families and hurts our economy.
In Dane County, we often think we are different from the rest of Wisconsin but, in this case, we are not. Forty percent of the inmates in our county jail are black, yet African Americans make up just 6% of Dane County's population.
After the march, about half of the attendees moved inside the building to a meeting of the Dane County Public Protection and Judiciary Committee. Some testified, challenging a proposal to spend $140 million on a new county jail. While the conversation up to this point has revolved largely around how much to spend on a jail, these speakers asked if a new jail should be built at all.
Whether or not we should build a new jail, it's a positive sign to see pressure being applied to local leaders. Our local decision-making bodies are really, really white -- only three of 37 county board supervisors are people of color. The majority of supervisors are good people with good ideas but their perspectives are limited and many good questions go unasked.
The increased pressure to solve our incarceration disparities is turning into real change. Dane County is opening a community court for 17- to 25-year-olds on the south side of Madison that operates under a "restorative justice" model. Young people in the traditional court system make a stupid teenager mistake and get a record that follows them around for the rest of their lives, limiting their access to jobs and financial aid for education. The community court still makes these young people atone for their mistakes, but in a way that doesn't punish them for life.
The people behind the community court also hope to process cases faster, which should minimize the time young people are kept away from school or work -- the very things that will enable them to stay out of trouble.
Community-empowered solutions and restorative justice -- don't these sound much more Madison than a new jail?
There are encouraging signs towards change at the state level too. While I disagree with the vast majority of legislation passed in the last few years, I have to give Republicans credit for their recent efforts at fighting heroin. The legislation in question put millions of dollars into drug treatment programs and incarceration alternatives.
If these efforts are successful, the Legislature should expand these programs to address other addictions and crimes related to poverty.
I'm similarly hopeful that the Legislature can make progress on juvenile justice. Wisconsin is just one of nine states where 17-year-olds are still automatically tried as adults, and I believe it connects to our other incarceration problems.
Lots of states used to have similar tough-on-crime laws, passed in the 1980s to deal with the mostly fictitious super-predators from the inner city. Across the nation, teens were being tried by juries that they couldn't even serve on.
Many states have returned 17-year-olds accused of nonviolent crimes to juvenile court. It was found that sending 17-year-olds to adult jail and prison has little benefit and is ridiculously expensive for taxpayers. In 2013, the Illinois legislature, citing cost as the major factor, put most 17-year-olds back into the juvenile system.
Our state budget now spends more on prisons than on the UW System. With a looming budget hole, legislators will be looking to cut costs. Moving 17-year-olds back to the juvenile system would be a smart way to save money.
These local and state fixes are a good start, but they alone won't solve our problems. Groups like the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition will do their part, but it is the responsibility of all of us to keep up the pressure for urgent action.