Report: How Wisconsin’s criminal legal system robs Milwaukeeans of democracy

A new report, “Still Not Free When They Come Home,” produced by the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), examines how Wisconsin’s criminal legal system harms access to democracy in the state’s largest Black communities. Compiled over the first half of 2023, it condemns Wisconsin’s legal system as “a collective source of trauma for incarcerated people and their loved ones, causing social, financial, and additional upheaval.”

The report recommends building supports for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, expanding voting access, investing in community resources beyond police, and increasing oversight of law enforcement activities. On the North Side of Milwaukee home to a large share of Wisconsin’s Black residents, the report states. “The community has a long history of civic, and political involvement. However, its residents have also long experienced racist state violence, criminalization and incarceration, poverty, and disenfranchisement (having their rights, especially voting rights, taken away.)”

Kyle Johnson (left), political director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) stands beside Angela Lang (right), executive director of BLOC.

Wisconsin’s Black and Latino communities are among the most heavily incarcerated across the country. According to a Prison Policy Initiative analysis. Black Wisconsinites, who make up just 6% of the state population, are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate 11.8 times that of white residents. Native Americans in Wisconsin, the highest concentration of whom also live in Milwaukee, are also disproportionately represented in jails across the Badger State. The report by BLOC and CPD notes that while Black Wisconsinites are 6% of the state population, they represent 41% of the state prison population, or 8,800 people over 6,600 of whom were convicted in Milwaukee County.

Looking specifically at Milwaukee’s Black community, the report argues that “the targeted, often violent policing and high rate of incarceration that community members experience deeply harms the mental and physical health of residents — both those incarcerated and their loved ones — and makes it hard for community members to keep their families together, make a good living, keep stable and good housing, and participate in civic life.” Interviews conducted by six “member leaders from the Northside of Milwaukee” of their own family members helped build a picture of the consequences of policing and incarceration for  the community. “The findings described in this report draw from those interviews and the member leaders’ long-term community observations, their family members’ experiences, and personal recollections,” the report noted.

A Milwaukee police squad in front of the Municipal Court downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A Milwaukee police squad in front of the Municipal Court downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

From those interviews, the report identified several “incredibly destructive” effects of policing on the North Side, including breaking up families, worsening health and life expectancy, reinforcement of localized segregation, the perpetuation of poverty and the undermining of the community’s political power and voice. “In other words, the Wisconsin criminal legal system is a significant barrier to community safety and full democratic participation,” the report states.

Among its recommendations for policymakers, the report calls on more supports for incarcerated people and their families including free phone calls and transportation for in-person visits, increasing access to quality physical and mental health care from providers with relevant cultural competency and experience, and the establishment of free mental health care for the loved ones of incarcerated people. Restoring voting rights for everyone, including for people with felony convictions, is another key recommendation. The report calls for automatic voting registration for residents, and for registration lists to be kept in ways that recognize the life circumstances of incarcerated people and their families, such as frequent address changes.

In Wisconsin more than 65,000 people, or about 1.5% of the voting population, are unable to vote due to a felony conviction. “This statistic includes nearly 44,000 people who are living in their communities but still on papers,” the report states. Because of the anti-Blackness and racism that permeates the Wisconsin criminal legal system and the criminal legal systems throughout the U.S. —where Black people are targeted for policing and criminalization and often given longer sentences than white people  — Black people are significantly more likely to be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction than any other racial group. One in every 12 Black people (or nearly 8.4%), who would be otherwise eligible to vote, is disenfranchised in Wisconsin due to a felony conviction, according to the report.

Protesters occupy the Milwaukee County Jail's main entrance. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters occupy the Milwaukee County Jail’s main entrance in 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The report also highlights Wisconsin’s restriction of voting access. It references a 2022 study which ranked Wisconsin 47th among states when it comes to how easily residents can vote, and notes Wisconsin’s strict voter I.D. law.

Ensuring that incarcerated people and their families receive voter education is another concern. “The people we interviewed described getting inadequate or no support to understand their voting rights — until their family members or people who worked with BLOC helped them,” the report states. “Some interviewees were “off papers” (i.e., no longer under state surveillance through probation or parole) and did not know their rights had been restored. The community researchers had talked to many others in their community who did not know they could vote. Some even thought that their felony record permanently disenfranchised them. This awareness gap seems like a common experience in the Northside Milwaukee community. In Wisconsin and around the country, people with felony records are often confused about whether or not they are eligible — as are many parole officers and even election workers, who should be able to help. Moreover, a number of the interviewees said that they didn’t care about voting because they didn’t think it mattered or would not change anything.”

Community investments steered towards affordable housing, health care access and providing a living wage were recommendations of  the report. Expanding non-law enforcement violence intervention programs, hiring more public defenders while increasing their pay rate, abolishing cash bail, fees for low-level offenses, and administrative fees for people on probation, parole, and community supervision were also recommended.

Voting rights activists and others gathering at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting in July, 2022. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Voting rights activists and others gathering at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Early release through cash bail, probation, and parole were hot issues during the last election cycle. Republican lawmakers ran campaigns and passed laws calling for fewer people to be released from prisons and jails. In the U.S. Senate race in which  former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes lost to  U.S. Sen Ron Johnson by less than 1 percentage point. Republican political ads attacked Barnes as “a different kind of Democrat,” and a supporter of criminals. After Barnes’ defeat, a Republican election commissioner praised efforts to suppress voter turnout in Milwaukee’s Black and Hispanic neighborhoods for helping Johnson remain in office.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, pre-trial detention is the “fastest growing part of Wisconsin’s jail.” Additionally, more than  38,000 people are on probation and 22,000 are on parole, while 20,000 are in state prisons and 12,000 are in jails across Wisconsin, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Eliminating cash bail was one way the report envisions chipping away at the power of police. It also called on Milwaukee’s city government to  “strengthen the capacity of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission to hold officers accountable for the use of force.” During local government funding negotiations earlier this year, the commission’s power to set policy for the police department was stripped at the behest of Republican legislators in exchange for allowing Milwaukee to avert a fiscal crisis.

The policy change was directly in line with the wishes of the Milwaukee Police Association, which had objected to efforts to reform the police and limit their powers after 2020. Reforms  including the removal of officers from public schools at the request of students were reversed by the local government funding bill.

Voting rights activists and others gather at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The first day of early voting in Milwaukee. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The report by BLOC and CPD also called for sweeping reforms including the legalization of cannabis; the decriminalization of sex work, the expansion of restorative justice programs in schools, and seeking crime prevention through urban design including installing more street lights.

“These recommendations are actionable steps to a much-needed shift reimagining what public safety means at every level,” the report states. “In general, we need to divest and move away from the punitive, racist criminal legal system and mass incarceration, which harms the community on Milwaukee’s Northside, and invest in programs and other solutions that foster safety, accountability, and healing.”

The report concludes  that “democracy as a living practice cannot function as long as the crisis of policing and mass incarceration continues touching nearly every Black household in Milwaukee and elsewhere. In order to build a true and inclusive democracy, we must start with a right to be safe at home and the freedom to thrive in every community.”

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