President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president’s visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.
This is the second in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.
Part 2: The Wisconsin Connection
Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for minorities is 12.8%, which is approximately double the nation as a whole and more than three percent higher than the next highest state, Oklahoma. Joy Cardin related this information to Berman and asked what might cause Wisconsin’s numbers to be so high. He mentioned the Truth in Sentencing Law and the “war on drugs” as possibilities.
As Berman explained, the Truth in Sentencing Law was proposed with equality in mind. The idea being that it would stop racial bias in deciding who would be granted parole. Statistics showed that white offenders were being granted parole in higher numbers than minority offenders. With the Truth in Sentencing Law the sentence given would be the sentence served. This way all offenders would be treated equally. However, Berman further explained, that the law just shifted the inequality from who was granted parole to the actual sentencing. The rules attached to the law are complicated. To receive a shorter sentence, it is almost necessary to have a skilled, invested lawyer. Defendants who cannot afford the kind of legal help necessary receive longer sentences. They receive longer sentences not because they have committed a worse crime, but because the are less equipped in the court room.
Similarly he explained, the “war on drugs,” particularly the minimum sentencing laws related to crack cocaine, has disproportionately put African Americans behind bars. Berman said that the ratio is 9:1 for African Americans who are brought in to federal court for crack offenses.
To read an NPR article about Wisconsin’s incarceration of minorities click here.
To listen to the WPR interview click here.
To read Douglas Berman’s Sentencing and Policy blog click here.