By Raina J. Johnson
Special to the Milwaukee Times
In a 33-page report recently released by the UW-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, the numbers are startling but not surprising to many. The report focuses on two decades of data from “the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) files to assess employment and training barriers facing African American men with a history of DOC offenses and DOT violations. The report focuses on 26,222 African American males from Milwaukee County incarcerated in state correctional facilities from 1990 to 2012 (including a third with only non-violent crimes) and another 27,874 men with DOT violations preventing them from legally driving (many for failures to pay fines and civil forfeitures).
Of course, with these high numbers, it’s no surprise that black men, especially in Milwaukee County, can’t find jobs. “Prison time is the most serious barrier to employment, making ex-offender populations the most difficult to place and sustain in full-time employment. When DOT driver’s licensing history is also considered transportation barriers make
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successful labor force attachment even less likely,” the report said. “In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted its decennial count of Wisconsin residents; it found that 12.8 percent (or 1 in 8) of African American working age men behind bars in state prisons and local jails. This rate of mass incarceration is the highest for African American men in the country and nearly double the national average of 6.7 percent (or 1 in 15),” the report said.
Drug offenses are also a major part of the problem with high incarceration rates for black men.
The study found that forty percent of the African American males from Milwaukee County incarcerated since 1990 were drug offenders. In the early 1990s African Americans had 4 times as many annual admissions for drug-related offenses as white men. As drug offense soared in the 2002 to 2005 years African American men had 11 to 12 times as many drug-related prison admissions as white men.
Milwaukee County Supervisor David Bowen (10th district) said, “As the former program director of Urban Underground, I worked on a lot of issues that affect black males and one of them is the incarceration rate. We’ve (Milwaukee County Board) worked to stop the ‘prison industrial complex’, or what I call the school to prison pipeline – encouraging young people to go to school rather than to prison. We need to look at evidence-based practices and our own practices here that lead into the recidivism rates. We should be better at providing high impact and effective programs for juvenile offenders and also increase the use the electronic monitoring because just the mental effects of being locked up are harsh enough.”
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Supervisor Bowen’s recommendations and recent work on this complex issue reflect those also found in the study:
Changes in laws contributing to mass incarceration of lower-risk offenders and alternatives to imprisonment are critically needed with the focus on increasing public safety, supporting employment, and strengthening families.
Technical violators of probation rules should be diverted, whenever appropriate, to community supervision to allow employed ex-offenders to continue working.
Programs such as Windows to Work, a joint effort between the DOC and workforce investment boards, should be expanded to improve employment readiness, including restoration and repair of the driver’s license for those with fixable problems. Those unable to secure or repair their license should be given assistance obtaining a state photo ID. Obtaining a driver’s license and clearing up license suspensions and revocations should also be a priority employment initiative for those already released into the community.
Transitional jobs programs for released inmates and for offenders diverted from incarceration are needed in communities with high unemployment and job gaps.
Funding for employment training, job placement, and driver’s licensing should target the large population of black males approaching adulthood in Milwaukee County. Without such investments the population incarcerated will likely only increase and public safety problems escalate.
State aids funding free driver’s education in school districts where the families of more than half of the students are poor or near poor would advance the engagement of low-income youth in the labor force.
With this recent report by the UW-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, their recommendations and work being done in Milwaukee County – something can change for the betterment of our entire community.