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The issue of decriminalization of marijuana is on the front burner in many states, including Wisconsin, where Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is backing a plan that would allow residents to smoke and sell small amounts of the drug.
One of the goals of the proposal, Evers said, is to reduce the disproportionate rate at which the state's black residents are incarcerated.
"People shouldn't be treated like criminals for accessing medicine that could change or maybe even save their lives," Evers said at a Feb. 18, 2019, news conference announcing his plan.
In supporting Evers’ plan, state Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, cited high incarceration rates for African-American males.
''Over 40 percent of African-American men in my county have been going to prison for low-level drug offenses, and I think a hundred times that in the city of Madison," Crowley said Feb. 24, 2019, on WKOW’s "Capital City Sunday."
Is Crowley correct?
Milwaukee County incarceration
When asked for backup, Crowley’s staff cited a 2013 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study.
The study — "Wisconsin’s mass incarceration of African American males: Workforce challenges for 2013" — stated: "Forty percent of the African American males from Milwaukee County incarcerated since 1990 were drug offenders."
But that covers all drug offenses, whereas Crowley used the figure to describe "low-level drug offenses." So, Crowley is clearly off — though it is difficult to say by how much.
Molly Vidal, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said in an email that "There is not a Wisconsin-specific or universally common definition of ‘low-level offense.’"
One point of reference is the level Evers uses for his decriminalization measure.
Under Evers’ plan, which faces strong opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature, the state's agriculture and health departments would regulate medical marijuana and users, and manufacturers and distributors of medical marijuana would not be charged with crimes if they handled up to 25 grams of the drug.
For perspective, 25 grams of marijuana could fit inside a plastic sandwich bag.
According to NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, marijuana is a Schedule I hallucinogenic substance under the Wisconsin Uniform Controlled Substances Act.
Penalties can vary, depending upon the amount or whether it is person’s is a first or multiple offender.
For example, a first offense possession charge is a misdemeanor that can result in up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, while possession of any amount (subsequent offense) is a felony and can result in up to 3.5 years incarceration and a maximum fine of $10,000.
A November 2018 report on Dane County prison admissions notes "in general, only criminal felony cases result in an order for a person to be admitted to the Wisconsin State Prisons."
As to the second part of the claim, that the rate in Madison is "a hundred times" that of Milwaukee County, Crowley aide Kyle Caudill said the lawmaker got it wrong
"The 100x comment was misspoken," Caudill said via email. "It is referring to the figure in (a) CityLab article from 2016 stating that ‘in Dane County … black residents were admitted to prison for drug offenses at 97 times the rate of white residents."
The figure behind that quote is the African American drug prison admission rate is 433.76, while the white drug admission rate is 4.46. The numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In any case, it is a massively jumbled comparison.
The study in question compares the discrepancy between black and white incarceration within Dane County. It says nothing about how the African-American incarceration rate in Milwaukee County compares to that in Dane County. (What’s more, Crowley also erred in citing the city of Madison, not Dane County.)
What about the gap?
So, where do things stand when it comes to the incarceration gap?
A Jan. 12, 2018, Pew Research Center article notes the gap is shrinking.
Using numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it says "a significant decline in the number of black prisoners in recent years has steadily narrowed the gap between blacks and whites in prison to the point where it is half as wide as it was in 2009, when America’s prison population peaked."
The article also says:
At the end of 2016, federal and state prisons in the United States held about 486,900 inmates who were black and 439,800 who were white —a difference of 47,100, according to the BJS. In 2009, by comparison, there were 584,800 blacks and 490,000 whites — a difference of 94,800. (This analysis counts only inmates sentenced to more than a year.)
Of course, since there are many more whites than blacks in the nation, the rate is a better measuring stick. The article notes:
"In 2016, there were 1,608 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults – more than five times the imprisonment rate for whites (274 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (856 per 100,000)."
It also notes that for the all three groups, the rate has declined since 2009. For blacks it has declined the sharpest (25 percent), compared to 19 percent for Hispanics and 11 percent for whites.
A July 10, 2018, CNN report cited a number of theories about what's behind the closing gap, from tougher law enforcement in rural, mostly white areas, to the explosion of opioids and heroin, which have hit hardest in white communities.
Those reports both relate to national numbers.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Department of Corrections data shows that the number of black offenders admitted to prison who were convicted in Milwaukee County, and whose most serious offense was a drug offense, has mostly been declining since 2009:
2009 — 510 offenders
2010 — 505
2011 — 361
2012 — 291
2013 — 251
2014 — 245
2015 — 219
2016 — 237
2017 — 235
2018 — 236
The number for 2018, the most recent year available, is about 54 percent lower than 2009.
Crowley said ''Over 40 percent of African-American men in my county have been going to prison for low-level drug offenses, and I think a hundred times that in the city of Madison."
He was off on several levels -- from incorrectly applying the Milwaukee County number to only low-level offenses, to massively jumbling the Milwaukee County-to-Madison comparison.
His own aide acknowledged Crowley "misspoke."
For a statement that is not accurate, our rating is False.
Capital City Sunday, interview State Rep. David Crowley, Feb. 24, 2019, about 1:00 mark.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Decriminalizing marijuana aimed at reducing black incarceration rate, Gov. Tony Evers says," Feb. 18,.2019.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Assembly speaker says there is little chance lawmakers will accept plans for medical, recreational pot,"Feb. 21, 2019.
University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee "Wisconsin’s mass incarceration of African American males: Workforce challenges for 2013."
CityLab "How Wisconsin Became the Home of Black Incarceration," August 17, 2016.
Justice Policy Institute "African Americans in Dane County are admitted to prison for drug offenses at 97 times the rate of whites"
Pew Research Center "The gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking," Jan. 12, 2018.
CNN "5 facts behind America’s high incarceration rate," July 10, 2018.
Federal Bureau of Prisons "Inmate Race," Jan. 26, 2019.
Email Kyle Caudill, Legislative Aide, Office of Rep. David Crowley, Feb. 28, 2019
Email, phone call Molly Vidal, Wisconsin Department of Corrections, director of communications, March 7, 2019.
Dane County Prison Admissions data from 2000 through 2017, revised Nov. 26, 2018.
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