Criminal Justice

"If you live in the quote, unquote hood and poor areas, you are policed in a way that people in affluent areas are not, right?"—Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, Associate Professor of History, UW-Madison Afro-American Studies

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Criminal Justice

Ep 1 | 27m 46s

The glaring racial disparities in Wisconsin's criminal justice system are shaped by a long history of unequal application of the law toward Black and white Wisconsinites. Growing understanding about the effects of racism and the long-term expansion of incarceration is prompting efforts to educate about their unjust impacts and provide sustained support for people within their communities.

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The following program is a PBS Wisconsin original production.

[gentle, dramatic music]

Reverend Greg Lewis:
We have to talk about that elephant in the room.

Reggie Jackson:
Racism has been a part of Wisconsin history since the beginning as a state.

Alex Lindenmeyer:
Gosh, as white folks, we have so much to learn.

[somber music]

Dr. Clark-Pujara:
History can help us understand why we are where we are.

[gentle music]

Funding for Wisconsin in Black & White is provided by Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, DeAtley Family Foundation, Joe and Mary Ellyn Sensenbrenner, Lau and Bea Christensen, The Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Capital Times, Madison College, National Guardian Life Insurance Company, UnityPoint Health – Meriter, donors to the Focus Fund for Journalism, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

Murv Seymour:
Hello, I’m PBS Wisconsin special projects journalist Murv Seymour.

In a series of special reports, we take an in-depth look at systemic racism here in Wisconsin.

Its history across the state is painfully complex and opens lots of old and new wounds.

In this first episode of Wisconsin in Black & White, we take a look at history and the criminal justice system.

Professor Ion Meyn:
There are more Black Americans in prison than white Americans right now.

That is, and should be, completely shocking.

It is apartheid.

Noble Wray:
It takes a society to look at this in a different way.

Secretary Kevin Carr:
That’s a statistic that I don’t think any of us should be proud of.

Justice Jill Karofsky:
Oh, my God, this is such a big problem.

We ask the question, “How did we get here?”

[door clatters]

[twinkling music]

[typewriter clicking]

Systemic racism means that within that society, you have factors about people’s lives that you can predict the outcomes of their lives on the day that they’re born, based on the racial groups that they belong to.

Reggie Jackson educates people about diversity.

– Racism has been a part of Wisconsin history since it began as a state.

I often times joke with people that I call Wisconsin “Wississippi” because we generally think of racism in the South.

Dr. Clark-Pujara:
Lincoln opposed slavery’s expansion, not its existence.

Dr. Clark-Pujara is an author, and she teaches African American history at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.

– Systemic racism, much of it, is an extension of the creation of race-based slavery.

And race-based slavery was created through law, and that was done in the colonial period.

– Jesus give you some tough love.

Racism is huge here in Wisconsin, and it’s worse than it’s ever been.

Milwaukee is kind of special.

This is the Selma of the North.

When I go to other places, people don’t even know that Milwaukee have Black folks living here.

Say, “There’s Black folks in Milwaukee?”


And they’ve been oppressed like crazy.


Not surprisingly, the highest demographic representation of African Americans…

University of Wisconsin law professor Ion Meyn teaches race and the law, civil rights, and wrongful convictions.

– White society is addicted to racism.

He has a lot to say about the racial climate in Wisconsin.

– I don’t know what makes Milwaukee the most segregated city in the United States.

It is.

And I don’t know what makes the practices in Milwaukee generate an overrepresentation of Black people in prison so that it’s the highest in the nation.

If you’re a Black person, Black resident in Wisconsin, you have a 12 times higher chance of being incarcerated than a white Wisconsinite.

History tells us the over-policing of Blacks in Wisconsin and across the country dates back to the end of slavery.

– When the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in December of 1865, most people never read what it says.

– It abolishes slavery, and then there’s a semi-colon, “Except for punishment for those who have been found guilty of a felony.”

– It creates the ability for you to be back in slavery in a different form.

Something like loitering, which had never been illegal before, becomes illegal.

– Whistling in public.

Like, I mean, like that level of nonsense.

Walking along a railroad track, not being able to produce employment papers on demand.

You steal a pig, you go to prison for life.

– Instead of sending you to prison, someone who owns a plantation or a mine or some business who wants some free labor, they’ll be able to come in and grab you and put you into that system so that you’re not gonna go to prison.

Now you’re gonna go back and work for free.

– Society says, “Oh, my gosh, Black people have a propensity to commit crimes,” versus what was going on, which was they were arresting Black people for committing no crime, and then sending them to slavery.

The small town of Appleton was once the center of one of the most racist tactics used across the country to keep Blacks out of white communities.

Appleton doesn’t really have any Black people, and if you asked people in Appleton, it’s just because Black people didn’t wanna move there.

Black people lived in Appleton before the 1880s, and they attempted to join a growing community during the ’40s and ’50s, but it was a sundown town through 1970 and enforced by the police.

Sundown towns were places that didn’t allow Blacks and other people of color after dark.

They were all over Wisconsin.

Nearly 250 in all, according to a database created by Washington, D.C. sociologist James Loewen.

Dr. Clark-Pujara:
So, Black people can be there as workers, they can come to fish during the day, but you’d better be out by night.

Some places had a horn that would ring in the evening when it was time for Black people to get out.

Some places literally had signs on the side of the roadway that said, you know, “After the sun sets, Black people, you’re not welcome here.”

About that time, the prison population in Wisconsin and everywhere else begins to explode.

[dramatic trumpet music]

Six days of rioting in a Negro section of Los Angeles left…

After the Watts riot, white people blamed Black people for the problem.

The response was a call for federal funding to provide a more robust policing of these areas.

We started to see this war on crime.

– Sec.

Kevin Carr:
I’m aware that the current criminal justice system has a disproportionately large number of persons of color involved in it.

It makes me somewhat sensitive to, hopefully, being able to address the needs of that population in a way that is fair to everyone.

Former Madison police chief Noble Wray sits on the governor’s pardon board.

– The politics back then was tough on crime, tough on drugs, say no to drugs.

It was, you know, a zero-tolerance approach.

– You’re not going to hire all of these police officers for them to sit around and do nothing.

It was billions of dollars.

Officer 1:
Open the ####ing door, or I’m gonna break the ####ing window.

Officer 2:
Open the door, man.

It was changing the face of corrections and policing.

Officer 1:
So if you cooperate… – All of that money focused on those communities of color.

– You end up with a disproportionate population that are under the criminal justice system.

– If you live in the quote, unquote hood and poor areas, you are policed in a way that people in affluent areas are not, right?

And so you are just more likely to find yourself in front of a judge.

– White individuals, their cases get dismissed at a rate 50% higher than the Black individuals.

There’s a higher rate of sentencing Black individuals for the same crime, at every part of the system.

By the way, there’s a higher rate of Black individuals for the same thing being sent to a higher level of security prison.

And then there’s a higher rate of white people in prison getting good time credits than Black people.

If you look at every part of the system, it doesn’t matter where you look.

You’re going to find these drivers of disparity.

Today, former governor Tommy Thompson and others admit building more prisons was the wrong approach.

Now retired, Thompson is a passionate advocate for more educational opportunities for those incarcerated.

– The increased crime indicated that we needed more prisons at the time, and which I accommodated.

But every time I did this, I always tried to balance on the other side.

I was big on welfare reform.

I was big on workforce development.

I was big on expanding education.

Domineé Meek:
In February of 1992, I had been expelled… Murv: At age 15, Domineé Meek received a life sentence for taking the life of Warren Smith, Junior, an innocent bystander.

Domineé believes he and other Black and brown teens receive harsher sentences compared with whites the same age, convicted of the same crime.

Domineé Meek:
When I was incarcerated, I only met one person that was white that was sentenced as a juvenile to life in prison.

They took Black boys and said that “Y’all are Black men.”

And they punished us like men.

They don’t do that to white boys.

Not in the numbers.

They gave them help.

– In Wisconsin, the number of, kind of, criminal referrals is three times higher for Black kids than white kids.

– You got two or three generations of Black parents who have been incarcerated.

The majority of the people locked up are Black and brown.

So when you got the majority of us locked up, you can’t be a parent from prison.

So when that child looks for that, only place he goes to get it is in the streets.

So we need father figures to step up, somebody to be, that I can call at 2 o’clock in the morning and say, “Murv, I’m locked up, can you come get me?”

Or “Murv, I’m scared, can you come get me?”

Or “Murv,” and when I disappoint Murv, that still is gonna love me like Murv would love his own children.

In 2020, Domineé walked out of Oakhill Correctional Institution after 28 years.

He says he doesn’t feel free.

– When I left prison in September, one hole was filled, but one wasn’t.

Warren can never come back and hug his mama, hug his baby girl.

I live my happiness, and I live this life, but I never forget about Warren.

The goal is to prevent another Domineé from killing another Warren.

Domineé is a former student of Odyssey Beyond Bars, a college jumpstart program at Oakhill.

Peter Moreno runs it on behalf of the University of Wisconsin, out of four institutions in the state.

– We’ve learned through experience that long prison sentences, while they may be appropriate for certain crimes, are not appropriate for a lot of crimes.

And long prison sentences, combined with a lack of programming in the prisons, can be especially harmful because we’re keeping people in an environment where they’re unable to learn, unable to grow, unable to socialize, and then we’re letting them go back to their communities, expecting them to do well.

Moreno encourages a closer look at the conditions of neighborhoods and fixing problems leading to people entering the criminal justice system.

– We know how to deal with many of these issues.

With the recidivism rate of just over 31%, Wray says there are four support systems proven to help close the sometimes-revolving door back to prison.

– Do you have a place to live when you get out, and is that place solid, does it reinforce, does it support you?

Two, do you have employment, which is big.

Three, do you have the people around you that support you and that will help you in terms of doing the right things, making the right decisions?

And the fourth one is treatment.

– Wisconsin should be less worried about getting a bad rap and more worried about improving the lives of the people in this state who live in our communities of color.

In 2016, Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky took part in a course called “Justified Anger: Black History for a New Day.”

The program was run by the Madison organization Nehemiah, which focuses on strengthening the African American community in Wisconsin.

Justice Karofsky says the course on racial disparities in the criminal justice system gave her a new understanding of how, at times, the criminal justice system unfairly impacts people of color.

– This country was founded by white men who were well-intentioned and who created a system of laws and the Constitution that was built on the idea of freedom.

But back in the late 1700s, we know that they didn’t mean freedom for all people.

Because of that, it has been the white majority who has been in control of so much of this country.

Business, of government, of the financial world.

It is gonna need to be leaders in those areas that are going to have to help make the change that so many of us wanna see.

Justice Karofsky says inspiration from attending “Justified Anger” led her to bring the Nehemiah anti-racism trainings to other judges across the state in the form of intense, one-day sessions.

– Do you think that we have too much emphasis on race these days?

– No.

Most Supreme Court justices don’t do interviews like this.

The reason I am doing this interview and I agreed to do it is because I think, and I believe, and I know, and I see that it is a problem in our state, and maybe if I stand up and sit here, as uncomfortable as it may be for me, that that may help be part of the change.

One of the ways we can do that is to try to reach out to our colleagues of color, to mentor them, to learn from them because their experience is very, very rich and could be different than ours.

And then, to help them succeed, should they wanna run for judge, or should they wanna ask for an appointment.

Secretary Carr says he sees a shift from simply locking people up for public safety to providing more treatment, more education, more trauma-based care.

– We have started to rely more on alternatives to revocations, such as short-term sanctions and community-based programming, and for instance, like drug treatment referral for minor possession cases as opposed to sending that person back to prison.

– Each of us needs to figure out what is it that we can do.

If it’s only one thing, then it’s only one thing.

We really wanted to have a brick-and-mortar space, like, in the heart of the city where people could come together.

Short Stack Eatery in Madison serves up a lot more than food.

Gosh, as white folks, we have so much to learn.

[bell dings]

Its owner says their spot serves as an example of how to help equalize what they consider the uneven intersections of race and inequality.

Alex Lindenmeyer:
We’re definitely unapologetically trying to become less and less racist every day.


That’s our goal.

We figure if we can unravel some of our racist tendencies and indoctrinations, everybody can.

At her restaurant, Lindenmeyer’s job applications look different.

There is no box to check if you have a felony conviction.

– The fact that we don’t have a box on our application, and we don’t do background checks, and we don’t do drug testing, and all those things.

For years, they have also routinely sent its managers to the Nehemiah’s nine-week “Justified Anger” course.

– We have huge, huge systems to figure out how to disassemble and reassemble, and so it’s gonna be lifelong work.

– They said 92% of our community didn’t even know that there was a mayoral election.

Black folks can’t do it alone.

They can’t do it without us.

We’re the one causing the violence.

– Stop running people over here out in these streets.

Stop shooting folks, man.

Yeah, they need to fix it.

We ain’t gonna fix that, man.

We’re the hated ones.

[gentle music]

– We continue our reporting on race and the criminal justice system in Wisconsin.

We are here at Short Stack Eatery in Madison, and we are joined by the owner of Short Stack Eatery, Alex Lindenmeyer, and we’ve also got Dr. Alex Gee of Nehemiah’s “Justified Anger” project, and Carl Fields, who is with EXPO, which stands for EX- incarcerated People Organizing, and he’s also representing Wisdom, a faith-based group that operates out of the state of Wisconsin.

Alex, I wanna start with you.

You mentioned, during our pre-interview, that you felt like Wisconsin business owners could do more to help impact the disparity that we see in the criminal justice system.

What do you think they can learn from some of the things that you’re doing here?

And I’d love to hear what you guys have to say about it, too.

– People that are justice-involved have so many things that they’re dealing with.

So employers need to internally start having the conversation about what the criminal justice system even looks like now.

If you’re not justice-involved, or you don’t have a family member, or you don’t have an employee that’s justice-involved, it’s designed on purpose for you to not care, for you to not know.

And so employers really need to get educated internally about what’s going on and what these barriers are that people are up against, and then figure out how they can set up support systems within their culture and within their organization to make sure people get what they need.

– Yeah, we know that you purposefully hire folks that do have barriers.

Carl, how does that help folks that are transitioning?

– To know that there are companies that are sticking to what society intended for criminal justice to be is huge, and that is tangible to say, “Yeah, “oh, you paid your dues, come on.

“We, not only will we like to work with you, “but we’d be honored to “because you got something you wanna show, you got something you wanna prove.”

And we’re also creating opportunities that that’s a real job, you know, opportunity to give to somebody who is really in need of that.

– And Doctor, your organization runs a re-entry program?

Dr. Alex Gee:
It does; it does.

– And how do you see businesses being able to impact things?

– If we want to attract large businesses to this community, where again, there’s low unemployment, we have to help people who are in this community, wanting to work, willing to work, to become employed.

So one of the things that we do through our re-entry program is we help to find jobs for men and women, particularly men, with our programming, to find jobs, you know.

My vice president for re-entry, a gentleman named Anthony Cooper, has placed over 1,000 men over the past eight or nine years.

That’s significant because when you come out of prison, and you have stable employment, you can have stable housing, which means you can live a stable life in the community, and it drastically reduces the temptation to recidivize.

So we have a responsibility to our own state’s economy and to the well-being of good people.

We need them in order for our economy to be stronger in this community.

– I would love to hear what you folks think are some of the biggest challenges facing our criminal justice system.

– You know, when we talk about, you know, alternatives to whether it be a deferment program through the court on pretrial, or during incarceration, or post-incarceration, those programs, those options that come up are always met with a zero margin of error.

And that is so problematic to me because the current system and what it produces is not held to any sort of standard on that level, but in fact, does have a low effectiveness rate.

But we can’t seem to take some chances to try something else because it’s not politically advantageous always.

It’s not classy; it’s not sexy.

– What role do you think our federal government and our state government, what role do you think they play in affecting the criminal justice system here in the state?

– I think that these governmental agencies need to really own up to the fact that this criminal system is really producing what it was designed to produce, this ugly, ugly cycle.

It needs to be called out and dismantled so we can build something that’s equitable and that really does rehabilitate.

– The history of how systems were built and what they were built for, that plays out, continues to play out even to this day, a hundred-plus years later, and that is a weight on any person who enters the system.

As an ex-knucklehead myself, turned professional, I messed up in life, I made some poor choices, but no one anywhere in the criminal justice system told me that felonies were gonna be forever.

I’ve seen that the barriers just continue, seen that no matter what I do or how much of a great effort I put forward, society’s still allowed to socially acceptably mistreat me.

– You could buy someone a house and send them to college for what it costs, you know, at least put a down payment on a house, for what it costs to incarcerate.

So what are we really trying to do?

We have the money; why are we locking people up when we could use resources or redirect them to really help people out of a hole?

– I learned in my reporting the term ‘crimeless revocations.’

I’d love to get you to, you know, let our viewers know what it exactly means and how it leads and feeds the pipeline to prison.

– The working definition of a crimeless revocation is placing a person into prison or placing a person back into incarceration for not having committed a new crime, but for a technical violation or rules violation of some kind.

– The way that plays out specifically is perhaps you bought a car and didn’t get it cleared with your agent.

Yeah, you used a computer.

– You used a computer.

You got married and didn’t ask for permission.

I know that those are some extreme things, but I know folks who have feared for their lives or their freedom for doing things just like that.

But just think about this, the crazy numbers, to Alex’s point, of people in prison are folks who have returned on technicalities.

– We look at states like Oregon, we look at states like Washington, that are putting huge dollars into programs of figuring out how to get parents things they need while they’re locked up, figuring out how to get families reunited while folks are locked up, figuring how to get families that have somebody locked up the resources they need.

And our state has a lot of catching up to do, for sure.

– Minnesota has a comparable demographic to Wisconsin, but they don’t incarcerate nearly as much as we do.

It really is big business.

That’s not just cliché; it’s really big business.

– Another learning process I went through in this reporting is I learned about language, and I learned that I’m guilty of saying some things that, you know, aren’t humanizing people.

How important is the language of incarceration?

– When we’re talking about felons or convicts or inmates, you know, last I checked, I was a person, and I continue to be that.

And so person-first language is something that we’ve been driving on in this work that we do for quite some time.

– It’s the language that helps us to reinforce barriers.

“This person can’t be trusted, “I don’t want you around my family, you can’t come to my church, you can’t work at my job,” so it begins with even the language.

And again, what it conjures in our minds about what this person is capable of, but when you use those terminologies, you don’t really think that they’re really ex or former.

It’s just you did some time, but you’re still in that same place, and that’s why we keep that same title.

We just put ex in front of it.

– I have employees that go to UW who are 19 and white, and I have employees who are 45 on paper, and we have some disparities, some differences, and if we actually wanna figure out how to make this a safe place for everybody to work, it’s a lot of internal conversation about things like, “Hey, you can’t say convict, you can’t say felon, here’s why.”

We gotta figure out how we got here.

I can preach at you all this stuff about the lingo and the language, and why it’s ineffective or what have you, but until people have a basis or an understanding of how we ended up here, it’s a moot point.

– And Dr. Gee, how do we get all Wisconsinites to get vested on this?

– I don’t even know if that’s my expectation, but if I can have an impact on employers and their new employees, or individuals who want to make a difference.

When you invest in people who wanna make a difference, you trust in a ripple effect.

But I’ve learned that if I want to live a healthier and longer life, I can’t keep beating my head against the wall for people who wanna argue these points.

I need to take the time to invest in people who wanna be allies, who wanna speak out, and who want to make sure that everyone has judicial justice in their lives.

And so I try to invest in the people who want to be a part of the change and hope that, at some point, we will have an impact on Wisconsin, but I don’t go after the whole state.

I just try to really work with the people who want to get it.

– We’re gonna have to leave it there.

Thank you all for being here; Dr. Gee.

– My pleasure.

– Mr. Fields.

– Sir.

– Alex Lindenmeyer, on behalf of PBS Wisconsin and our crew, we appreciate you for providing a space for us to have this important conversation.

– My pleasure.

– And we thank you folks for joining us, too.

[somber music]

Funding for Wisconsin in Black & White is provided by Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, DeAtley Family Foundation, Joe and Mary Ellyn Sensenbrenner, Lau and Bea Christensen, The Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Capital Times, Madison College, National Guardian Life Insurance Company, UnityPoint Health – Meriter, donors to the Focus Fund for Journalism, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

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