Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System: Report Not So Bad
We have also debated, in an exchange right here, Prof. Pamela Oliver, sociologist who is a member of the Commission.
The Commission’s Report was posted this morning, and it was pretty much what we reported it would be in a post last Thursday.
What is happily missing from the Report? Any blanket condemnation of the Wisconsin justice system as racist. Given that the Commission was appointed by Governor Doyle as a sop to some black legislators, and given that some of those legislators have a propensity to play the race card at any opportunity, we feared that this might happen.
Such a “finding” would be highly damaging, since it would create pressure for an affirmative action program by police and prosecutors to “make the numbers come out right.” It’s clear who would be harmed by this: blacks in the inner cities of Wisconsin who are the most frequent victims of black criminals.
Indeed, the Report admits this possibility:
One on-going form of discrimination in United States history has been the under-protection of minorities in the criminal justice system. The Commission notes that progress in avoiding over-incarceration of minorities should not be made at the expense of victims of crimes. Protection must also remain for those victims who live in challenged neighborhoods.The one area where the Report comes closest to asserting an actual bias against blacks concerns drug crimes.
The evidence is that in some areas, particularly enforcement of the drug laws, some disparity results from policies and practices that have disparate impacts on people of color – most heavily on African-Americans – and these policies and practices should be carefully reviewed and could be improved by police, prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, social workers, and others who work in and influence the operation of the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems.Note, however, that even here, the charge is not flat-out racial discrimination but rather a disparate racial impact of policies that aren’t discriminatory on their face.
We stated as much in our article that came out this past September in The Wisconsin Interest, although we added that the black community has been in the forefront of promoting tough drug enforcement, and that there is a rational basis for tough drug enforcement where drug trafficking can be viewed as a community problem, and not a mere private vice.
Where the Commission looked at new data, they pretty much found no evidence of racial discrimination. For example, a report on the treatment of inmates in an Appendix to the Report (pages 77-83) shows only minor and inconsistent differences between the treatment of blacks and whites.
The recommendations of the Report, which span pages 5-22, are numerous and mostly benign. From example, the last one says:
DOC [Department of Corrections] should work collaboratively with the faith communities to provide services that would assist in the rehabilitation of inmates and prepare them for release from prison. The networks built through this interaction will assist in the maintenance of strong ties and supervision once the inmate returns to his or her community.OK. Sure. We are all for that.
One large class of recommendations calls for gathering more data. For example, we get this:
Currently, there is a lack of data and/or lack of tracking data by race at all stages of the justice system, from initial law enforcement contact through probation, incarceration, and parole. Local jurisdictions need to have data so they have an understanding of what is happening in their communities and can begin the discussion locally.This sounds benign enough. But it could actually be damaging if it becomes an unfunded mandate in which agencies are required to devote scarce resources to gathering data and producing reports, as opposed to actually doing their jobs.
It could also be damaging if it leads to a preoccupation with “getting the numbers right” and a sort of affirmative action program where blacks get treated more leniently so that they won’t appear to be “disproportionately” punished. But this latter possibility is mitigated by the lack or rhetoric about racial bias in the system. People having to collect and report such data won’t face a situation where they are presumed to be racist until they prove otherwise.
The Report is particularly concerned about revocations of probation and parole, which have an effect on the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks. Is this evidence of racial bias? The Report doesn’t assert such, but does call for collecting data.
The Report does show a sensible concern with offenders who have been released and need to rehabilitate themselves with a job or education or both. For example:
Active efforts should be made to change prohibitions against financial aid for education and housing for convicted drug offenders.And there is this:
The State Department of Transportation and Department of Corrections program should be expanded to serve inmates at all Department of Corrections facilities and aid inmate reintegration by ensuring that inmates who request them have a valid identification card before they are released.Although we are very hard-nosed about the value of incarceration (the one “social program” with a consistent track record of reducing crime), when an offender has “paid his debt to society” we see no need for artificial barriers to rehabilitation.
Even where the Report seems to embrace mushy liberalism, the practical effect of doing what they recommend would probably be small. Making more drug treatment available, for example, doesn’t seem so lenient when one understands that simple users rarely get prison time anyway. Then there is this:
Consistent with the results of the January, 2008 Legislative Audit report, legislation should be introduced to return jurisdiction of 17 year olds alleged to have violated state or federal criminal laws to juvenile courts. Current waiver provisions should be maintained.So long as particularly dangerous 17 year-old offenders can be waived into adult court, the practical effect of this is likely to be small. Simply being in adult court doesn’t guarantee tough punishment.
No doubt the Report does have a bit of a mushy liberal ambience, with about every feel-good idea you can think of thrown in. But some of the ideas are good ones, and excessive racial rhetoric has been avoided.
We see little harm in it, and maybe at least some good.