OPINION: Going Backwards in a Forward State

April 15, 2022

By: Alex Gee April 15, 2022 Original Post: Madison 365

Waupun Correctional Institution. (Lauren Furhmann / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)

Waupun Correctional Institution. (Lauren Furhmann / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)


Wisconsin is known as a beautiful state, filled with bucolic prairies and woodlands, beautiful cities and farms, as well as a diverse population committed to improving our State.  However, once again, a national report cites Wisconsin as the most racially disparate in criminal justice. A recent report by the Sentencing Project found that Wisconsin prisons still lead the nation in racial disparity. In 2011, the majority of people held in Wisconsin prisons were people of color. Now, after ten years of investigations, reports, debate, and outrage, Wisconsin retains this dubious, and sad, distinction. If Wisconsin was last in education, or health care, Wisconsin citizens would find it unacceptable, but this outrageous level of criminal injustice continues.

We, the Justified Anger Criminal Justice Work Table, are an ad hoc group formed on May 22, 2017, to focus on a collaborative, system-wide effort to eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system of Wisconsin. This is not the first group to study racial inequity in criminal justice; we lean on the champions of the past, support current leaders committed to improvements, and look to future leaders to build a more equitable and fair Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has done better in the past, and, working together, we can change and once again be a national leader in criminal justice reform. Our incarceration system was created years ago by people who believed it would keep us safer. It can now be changed by all of us recognizing that — as it presently works — our system destroys lives and ruptures communities, and does little to keep us safer.  Simply put, “Lock ‘em up longer” is not a system based on 21st Century principles, fails to achieve our goals, and is a system we can no longer accept.

While incarceration is necessary at times — for certain individuals and crimes — to protect people and property, all modern research shows that mass incarceration does not reduce crime, and is a system Wisconsin can no longer financially afford. We acknowledge the tragedies that have harmed Wisconsin families. We share that pain. However, that should not stop the State of Wisconsin cities and counties and residents from demanding better justice. Rather, our current realities should serve as a clarion call for increased effort to craft a more rational and demonstrably effective and just system.