Editor’s Note: Denise Lockwood has covered southeastern Wisconsin for over 20 years for CNI Newspapers, Patch, the Kenosha News and the Milwaukee Business Journal. She currently owns and operates the Racine County Eye, an independent local news website. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
When video emerged of Jacob Blake being shot by officers of the Kenosha Police Department on Sunday night, I knew the place where it happened – a neighborhood called Wilson Heights. When I covered crime for the Kenosha News, I spent a lot of time there because of the gang activity, heroin overdoses, shootings and stabbings.
To be clear, the details of exactly what happened to Jacob Blake are still not widely known and there are a lot of unanswered questions about how police handled this call.
Still, protesters denouncing the shooting have told me their protests are about what happened to Blake – and about what it’s like to be Black in Wisconsin.
To ignore the social, civic and economic oppression that Black people experience is wrong. Wisconsin policymakers need to take a good hard look at these issues and stop pretending these police shootings aren’t related to failures in underfunded social systems.
For decades, the southeastern Wisconsin region has seen its share of problems around race. Milwaukee is among the worst places for Black people to live in the country. Racine, the town I cover for the Racine County Eye, has much higher rates of infant mortality and unemployment for Black residents than White ones, according to the United Way of Racine County.
Kenosha similarly has struggled with issues of systemic racism. These areas all share the same problems – mass incarceration, high infant mortality, lack of mental health care access, unequal education, unemployment and drugs.
But for the past 20 years, I feel like I’ve written the same story over and over. Until Wisconsin policymakers confront these issues around systemic racism and violence, I worry that I’ll just have to keep writing it.
The Black incarceration rate in Racine County remains one of the biggest issues. The percentage of Black people incarcerated from Racine County represented 53% of the jail population in 2017.
But Black people represented only about 11% of the population of Racine County during that same time, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
When I wrote for the Milwaukee Business Journal, I often heard CEOs of manufacturing companies complain about lacking a skilled workforce. They would say that people didn’t dress well, speak well or show up on time. Workers had an attitude or couldn’t problem-solve.
The conversation would typically shift to the failed education system, failed family units and lack of resilience. And then the discussion took a U-turn around how not to pay state and local taxes.
As a business owner, I am not a fan of paying taxes, either. But I also want a skilled workforce.
To be fair, some of these issues in Wisconsin could be addressed (and some are being addressed) with trauma-informed care, more loans for minority-owned businesses, retooling educational models and simple things like offering free transportation for people seeking a job.
But there’s an elephant in the middle of the room called our criminal justice system, and it’s not a sexy topic for any politician.
When police shootings have happened before in Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha, protesters have spoken out against both the circumstances around the shooting and their economic and social uncertainty.
The response I see to those demonstrations in letters and comments from some of my readers of the Racine County Eye include: Get a job. Be a taxpayer. Finish school. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Start taking care of your kids.
And that’s putting all of that diplomatically, leaving out a lot of pejoratives.
There’s a counterproductive mindset here. On one hand we have a “lock them up and throw away the key” focused policy, but we also want felons leaving prison to behave a certain way.
When people get caught up in the criminal justice system, are the criminals the only ones who pay? No. And we absolutely need to own that – as a state and a country.
When kids don’t graduate, when you come to school late because you are getting your little brothers and sisters to school, don’t have time to eat breakfast, struggle with homework because you didn’t have a bed to get some rest in the night before, when your neighborhood isn’t safe and all you hear is gunshots – that’s a different experience for a child than growing up in a safe middle class neighborhood.
When I covered Wilson Heights, where the shooting of Jacob Blake happened, I remember reporting on a gang-related shooting where an apartment building got shot up, and a bullet went through a wall, through the leg of a mother and into her daughter’s leg.
They survived. But how do you live with that? Who pays for that untreated trauma?
We do. All of us.
Wisconsin taxpayers spend more than $1.3 billion each year for that criminal justice system, which deals with 105,000 people annually between its county jails, juvenile detention centers, federal prisons, community corrections, and prisons, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau Report.
But these policies also cause a civic debt that disproportionately impacts Black people. One especially problematic question is why people are locked up in the first place.
The answer may surprise people.
In a story I reported in March about Wisconsin’s prison system reaching all-time highs, researchers told me that the increased prison population is not the result of an increase in crime, but rather policy choices by politicians.
People who violate the rules – whether out on conditional release from prison or on probation – can be ordered by a judge to serve out their remaining sentences behind bars. When that happens, it’s called a “revocation only” prison admission.
That means they didn’t commit a new crime. Instead, the state chooses to send them back behind bars for violating the terms of their release.
Of the nearly 18,000 people sent to Wisconsin prisons in 2018, revocation only admissions were about 40%, according to the Department of Corrections. Violations can include not meeting with your probation officer, not notifying your probation agent of a job change, seeking credit or seeking permission to buy a car.
This issue is a symptom of a more significant, more systemic problem involving employment, wages, lack of mental health services, drug use, and lack of education. These issues disproportionately affect Black people.
A study by the Badger Institute framed the problem differently.
“The widespread failure of former inmates to stay out means too many children don’t have engaged fathers, and too many businesses don’t have enough workers,” wrote Mike Nichols, president of the conservative Wisconsin think tank.
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Once they are released from prison, it’s hard for felons to find a job and develop a new life.
Wisconsin law requires that people with felony convictions serve community corrections terms while on a conditional release that can exceed more than a decade, even though many violate some of the strict conditions of their release within just three years after leaving prison.
I am reminded of what Rodney Prunty, the former executive director of the United Way of Racine County, said to me during an interview: “If you have a pond full of fish and a few of them die, you ask what’s wrong with the fish. But when the pond full of fish dies, we ask what’s wrong with the pond.”
In Wisconsin, it’s time we talked about what’s wrong with the pond.