By Gretchen Schuldt
Wisconsin's adult incarceration rate has passed the national average, according to a new federal report.
The state locks up a larger share of its population than does any of its neighboring states of Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, or Iowa, according to a new federal report.
It's a significant change in status – the state has lagged behind or matched the average incarceration rate for the past several years.
The statistics are based on 2016 data, and so do not reflect the impacts of legislative changes, such as tougher drunk driving laws that are sending more people to prison.
Wisconsin jails or imprisoned 790 out of every 100,000 adults, while the nationwide average for states was 780 per 100,000, according to the report, "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2016."
Michael O'Hear, a Marquette University Law School professor and author of Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway, said the state's incarceration rate actually was much lower than the national average in the 1970s. That the rate rose above the national average carries symbolic weight, even though the the actual increase from the previous year was relatively small.
The state's incarceration rate in 2015 was 780 per 100,000 residents, the same as the national average. In 2014, the state locked up 770 people per 100,000, while the national average for states was 800 people per 100,000.
The figures include people aged 18 years and older in prisons and local jails, according to the report, published by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The severity of crime is not the issue, O'Hear said. "The increased rate I don't think at all is dictated by the violent crime rate," he said.
Instead, he said, the increase is attributable to "thousands and thousands of decisions made by hundreds of officials all across the state." Those involved include police, prosecutors, judges, and Department of Corrections employees, he said.
The $40 per hour the state pays private lawyers to defend indigent clients also is an issue, he said. The rate is the lowest in the nation.
"Assigned counsel pay is a scandal in Wisconsin," he said. "Forty dollars an hour is just not a figure that will work for an experienced, competent attorney."
With so many players involved, O'Hear said, it is not so easy to answer the question "How do you deal with this?"
The figures indicate the state has decided to rely on imprisonment, but there are other things it could do, such as increase funding for treatment and diversion programs, he said.
Expanding compassionate release to allow sick and elderly inmates out of prison also would help, as would implementing good time to allow inmates to shave time off their sentences. Most states have good time programs, but Wisconsin does not, O'Hear said.
Ending the practice of sending back to prison people on probation or extended supervision who violate Department of Correction rules, but are who are not accused of new crimes would help, too.
O'Hear, asked what he would do if he could do just one thing, said he would "cut maximum sentences in half. ...They grew a lot in the last generation."
Meanwhile, the state's prisons are overcrowded and a study is underway to determine if the state should add to its inventory.
"I think they will build more," O'Hear said. "I hope they don't."
By Gretchen Schuldt
Drug possession, bail jumping and traffic crime cases were the major drivers pushing Wisconsin's felony caseload up 8 percent last year, statistics show.
Circuit courts around the state in 2017 opened:
The number of all felony cases opened in the state rose from 39,171 in 2016 to 42,197, an increase of 3,026.
The numbers, provided by the Wisconsin Courts System do not reflect every charge filed, but the cases opened in which a drug possession charge was the most serious, or first listed.
Drug possession was the most common felony case opened in Wisconsin, accounting for about 19% of felonies filed in the state last year. The 14% increase doubtless reflects the increased presence of opioids and methamphetamine in the state.
Felony bail-jumping charges are criticized by defense lawyers for the negotiating advantage they give to prosecutors. There have been double-digit increases in felony bail jumping cases every year except one during the past six years – their numbers rose 20 percent in 2012, 11 percent in 2013, 6 percent in 2014, 12 percent in 2015, and 11 percent in 2016. They accounted for just under 19% of felony case openings statewide.
Felony bail jumping ranks second in the type of case opened. Felony bail jumping occurs when person out on bond in a felony case violates the condition of the bond, even if the violation is itsef not a crime. Having a beer in defiance of an "absolute sobriety" order, for example, could subject a person to a felony bail jumping charge, as could missing a drug test or a court date. Felony bail jumping is punishable by up to six years in prison, which may well be a longer sentence than the offender faces for the original crime.
The big jump in felony traffic cases last year was driven, no doubt, by tougher drunk driving laws that made fourth offense drunk driving a felony rather than a misdemeanor. There were 2,469 felony drunk driving cases opened statewide in 2017, up 40%, or 701 cases, from the 1,768 felony drunk driving cases filed in 2016, according to statistics.
The biggest declines were in burglary and armed robbery cases, according to the statistics.
Burglary cases dropped from 2,002 cases in 2016 to 1,830 cases last year, down 172 cases, or 9 percent. Armed robbery cases 706 in 2016 to 553 last year, down 153, or 22%.
By Gretchen Schuldt
West Allis municipal ordinance violators last year spent a total of 21.5 inmate years in the House of Correction because they did not pay their fines.
That is more time than the 18.7 inmate years non-paying ordinance violators from all 18 other county municipalities served, according to preliminary House of Correction figures.
Because municipal violations are considered civil offenses, rather than criminal, defendants are not entitled to legal counsel. Municipal violations are petty offenses such as disorderly conduct, littering, and traffic violations that are handled through tickets and municipal courts operated by cities and villages.
West Allis' 2017 commitment total was up 3.1 years, from the 18.4 years ordinance violators in that city spent locked up in 2016, according to House data.
In contrast, Bayside, Hales Corners, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, and West Milwaukee did not send anyone to the House for non-payment of forfeitures in 2017, according to the figures.
A total of 11 municipalities showed a drop in the number of days municipal offenders were locked up. St. Francis showed the biggest decline in days. It sent ordinance violators to the House for a total of 888 days in 2016 and 155 in 2017, a decline of 733 days, or two inmate years.
Bayside, Fox Point, Glendale, Greendale, Greenfield, Oak Creek, River Hills, South Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, and Milwaukee also showed declines.
Milwaukee's figures might be misleading because some Milwaukee's municipal commitments are served at the County Jail, not at the House, where the vast majority of suburban commitments are served.
House commitment days increased in Brown Deer, Cudahy, and Franklin, in addition to West Allis, according to the preliminary figures.
West Allis forfeitures for municipal violations are some of the highest in the county. A simple marijuana possession charge, for example, carried a $1,321 price tag.
That also was the case in 2015, according to a Public Policy Forum report. Meanwhle, the same offense in Bayside typically carried, typically, a $691 financial hit; in Shorewood, the cost was $376; in Wauwatosa, $100 - $200.
State law requires municipalities to reduce the amount of an unpaid Municipal Court fine by at least $50 for each day a violator is jailed, and most (but not all) municipalities hold to the $50 amount. So an unpaid Wauwatosa marijuana citation that would result in a four- to six-day stay in the House would mean in a 26-day stay if the ticket was issued in West Allis.
By Gretchen Schuldt
The black / white racial disparity in traffic stops by Milwaukee police was highest in the two police districts with the greatest share of white residents, a Department of Justice study shows.
The disparity was greatest in District 6 on the city's far south side. The district is about 70% white, according to the report, yet whites accounted for just 22 percent of traffic stops. African Americans, meanwhile, accounted for 3 percent of the population, but 64 percent of the traffic stops. Hispanics make up 21 percent of the population, and accounted for 14 percent of the traffic stops.
In real numbers, blacks were stopped 29,834 times from 2013 to 2015 in District 6; whites were stopped 10,407 times, and Hispanics, 6,335 times.
The second greatest disparity was in District 2, also on the south side, where African Americans accounted for 8 percent of the population, but 63 percent of the traffic stops.
"The disparity could be a result of the traffic enforcement strategy used by MPD," according to the draft copy of the report, which is all that was released before DOJ ended the study. There are "several" factors that could account for the racial and ethnic variation in traffic stops, the report said.
The report now is the subject of a review by a community committee, which will make recommendations to the city for MPD improvement implementation.
The table below shows the racial disparity in traffic stops in each police district. It shows the racial makeup of the district, the number of traffic stops by race, the percentage of the total traffic stops for each race, and a racial disparity score.
The disparity score is simply the difference between the population percentage by race and the traffic stop percentage by race. For example, District 5 is 76% black, but African Americans accounted for 67% of all traffic stops, a difference of minus 9 percentage points, which is reflected in the "Disparity" column.
The higher the number in that column, the more over represented that particular ethnic group is in traffic stops; the lower, the more under represented.
District 5 is the only district in which African Americans fall into the under represented category.
Conversely, whites were over represented in traffic stops only in District 2 and 5, and were under represented in the other five.
On average, the disparity score for whites was -17; for Hispanics, -4; and for African Americans, +27.
More traffic stop tickets, arrests for black drivers in Milwaukee despite consistent arrest, citation rates
By Gretchen Schuldt
Despite bearing the bulk of the burden of traffic stops by police targeting high-crime areas, African-American drivers in Milwaukee were no more likely to be ticketed or arrested than their white counterparts, according to a Department of Justice draft report.
Arrests were made in just 2% of traffic stops of African-American drivers, the same rate as for white and Hispanic drivers, according to the draft report.
Because so many more black drivers were stopped, however, the actual number arrested - 6,247 from 2013 to 2015 - was the highest among the three groups. There were 1,216 Hispanics and 1,920 whites arrested after traffic stops over the same time period.
That number / ratio disparity is true with citations as well. Black drivers and white drivers received traffic citations in 15% of stops, but because so many more black drivers were stopped - 273,712 compared to 88,037 - the number of traffic citations issued to black drivers was three times higher than the number issued to whites - 41,629 compared to 13,315.
Hispanic drivers received 8,766 traffic citations, or in 16% of stops.
Because high-crime areas generally correlate with low-income areas, the police strategy likely results in many more fines for low-income black residents in the city.
For the three races considered, the most likely outcome in a traffic stop was a verbal warning, which was given in 74% of cases involving white and African-American drivers and in 71% of cases involving Hispanics. (The Police Department prohibited verbal warnings in 2015.)
A simple stop could take as long as 45 minutes, even if it resulted in only a warning, the report says. The time involved can exacerbate "the negative impact of data-driven policing on the community," the report says.
The draft report, the Department of Justice Collaborative Reform Initiative Assessment Report, says that the Milwaukee Police Department focused enforcement efforts in high-crime areas, or "hot spots."
While data-driven policing is effective, the report says, "what police do at those locations can have both positive and negative consequences for crime and community trust."
Officers interviewed, the report says, were skeptical of the traffic stop strategy. "They were never told of the rationale behind the focus on the traffic stops, they did not believe that the traffic stop strategy would reduce crime, and they feel pressured to conduct traffic stops," the report says.
In addition, although the department denied it had a quota, "many officers indicated that the felt they had a quota of two traffic stops per shift," the report says. "If they did not achieve those numbers, the believed there would be some sort of retribution."
Community members participating in the study said they understood that police were focusing on high-crime areas, but "they felt that many innocent individuals are being stopped, harassed, and detained unduly simply because they lived in the community. ... We also heard complaints about 'curbing,' where individuals are asked to move away from their stopped car and sit on the curb or sidewalk while an officer interviews a driver or searches the car. Community members felt this practice was biased and disrespectful. ..."
By Gretchen Schuldt
Municipal Court traffic cases were down 13 percent during the first nine months of the year compared to the same time period last year, court records show.
Overall, there were 31,515 traffic cases in Milwaukee Municipal Court through September, down 4,912 from the number in the same time period last year, an average drop of 546 cases per month.
The court does not originate the cases - the statistics reflect the activity of the Milwaukee Police Department.
The number of traffic cases jumped sharply in August and September as public pressure about the issue got through to police.
The Police Department is using a data-driven system, Data Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACT), to identify traffic enforcement target areas, Asst. Police Chief James Harpole said. DDACT effort was made a priority enforcement tool in April, he told the Common Council's Public Safety and Health Committee.
Steve O'Connell of the Sherman Park Neighborhood Association listed for committee members some high-accident areas around Sherman Park.
Sherman Park residents gathered signatures on petitions seeking a written plan from the Police Department on how it will step up traffic enforcement in the city. The petitions also ask that police be required to report to the committee monthly on how many traffic tickets they issue. The circulators collected 76 pages of signatures without too much effort, O'Connell said.
The number of tickets issued by police has gone down dramatically over several years, he said.
"What's going on? Why less tickets? There's no reason for less tickets," he said.
Committee Chair Ald. Robert Donovan said bad driving was "epidemic" throughout the city.
"I am telling you, and you know damned well...that traffic safety in this city is for crap," Donovan told Harpole.
"Every single time I drive, I'm actually afraid," Ald Mark Borkowski said. He expressed some frustration with a police PowerPoint presentation on crime and traffic enforcement. "All I'm hearing is statistics," he said. "We all get these damned calls, and it's not right. These roads are out of control and it's not OK."
Harpole said traffic enforcement was a priority for the police.
"Our officers are putting forth a concerted effort every single day to make this city a safer place," he said.
The number of felony court cases opened in Wisconsin soared 18 percent over the five-year period that ended in 2016, according to state statistics.
The increase would have been even greater had not a 9 percent drop in Milwaukee County felony cases help offset the statewide jump.
The number of felony cases opened statewide increased by 6,068, from 33,103 in 2011 to 39,171 in 2016.
In Milwaukee County, in contrast, the number of felony cases opened fell by 578, from 6,121 in 2011 to 5,543 in 2016.
The figures count cases, not individual charges, and include cases in which the most serious charge is a felony.
An increase in the number of drug possession charges helped drive the statewide increase, but an even bigger factor was a jump in the number of felony bail jumping cases opened. Statewide, the number rose from 4,027 in 2011 to 7,034 in 2016, an increase of 3,007, or 75 percent.
In Milwaukee County, the number of felony bail jumping case rose 5 percent, from 249 to 262.
Bail jumping accounted for 18 percent of felony cases opened statewide last year, but just about five percent of felonies opened in Milwaukee County.
Felony bail jumping is criticized by defense lawyers as a charge issued by some prosecutors seeking to coerce a plea in the underlying case. Felony bail jumping carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison and the charge can be issued for non-criminal activity, such as missing a drug test or having a drink in violation of an absolute sobriety condition of bail.
The number of felony drug possession cases grew 41 percent statewide from 2011 to 2016, from 4,955 to 6,984. Milwaukee County saw a 42 percent decline in felony drug cases, 1,572 to 905.
Milwaukee County's largest increase came in an "other felony" category, up 405% from 2011 to 2016, from 125 to 631 cases opened. Felony traffic cases were up 44%, from 252 to 363 cases.
Felony Cases Opened, Wisconsin and Milwaukee County, 2011 to 2016
Milwaukee County judges handed down longer sentences - a median of 65 days - for nonviolent misdemeanors than did other judges around the state, new data show.
The statewide median sentence was 30 days.
None of the offenders considered had a previous conviction for violence.
Milwaukee County also ranked near the top in the share of nonviolent misdemeanants it sent to jail. Pepin County was tops, at 43.3%; Milwaukee County clocked in at 37%; and statewide, the median was 27.7%.
There also was a racial disparity the length of sentences for those nonviolent misdemeanors in Milwaukee County, The median sentence for nonwhite defendants was 70 days, 17 percent longer than the 60-day median for whites.
The median is the midpoint, meaning half the sentences were longer than the median and half were shorter.
Statewide, there was no racial disparity in sentencing, though individual counties did show disparities -- in six counties, nonwhite defendants were sentenced to longer terms, and in 20 counties whites received longer median sentences than nonwhites.
The data, part of the new Measures for Justice portal that made its debut Tuesday, cover the years 2012-2013.
Milwaukee County Chief Judge Maxine White said the county is in the midst of implementing a a $2 million grant Safety and Justice Challenge Grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to reduce the inmate population at the jail and the House of Correction.
Reducing the "misuse and overuse of jails is the mantra they gave us," she said Wednesday.
The partners in the grant, including the courts, the district attorney's office, the public defender's office and others, are working to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system, she said.
If methods other than criminal prosecution can be effective in dealing with those low-level crimes, she said, "we would have a substantially reduced caseload."
The county, according to the Safety and Justice Challenge website, is focusing on three initiatives.
The portal's data on nonviolent misdemeanors is only one of the data points that can be compared across county lines for the first time. The portal is still under development and contains data for just six states, including Wisconsin.
“The data are a treasure trove for communities that will now have access to reliable, informative, and comprehensive data about their criminal justice systems,” Amy Bach, president and executive director of Measures for Justice said in a prepared statement. “Our portal is intended to be a starting point for conversations about how to address the multiple issues facing the criminal justice system.”
There are data points a user will not find on the portal -- at least not yet. There are no statistics about specific crimes, for example. But the data that are available will provide new context to criminal justice discussions in the state.
More Wisconsin tidbits from Measures for Justice for the 2009-13 time span -- we'll be looking deeper into these in the coming weeks and months:
Adding 280 police officers to the city's payroll, as called for in a public safety plan, would cost $31.7 million per year by the fifth year of the surge, according to city budget figures.
That amount dwarfs $23.6 million budget for the entire Milwaukee Public Library system.
The additional cops would cost $29 million in the first year, then increase as officers receive annual step increases, city Budget and Management Director Mark Nicolini said in an email.
The costs include initial equipment costs of $7,285 per officer and a new $57,000 squad car for every five additional officers.
And while Common Council's Public Safety Action Plan says adding the 280 officers would restore police staffing to 2008 levels, figures from the city's budget office indicates that the increase would boost staffing levels well past those seen in 2008. That year, there was an average of 1,994 sworn officers. This year, there is an average of 1,888 sworn officers, or 106 fewer than in 2008, Nicolini said.
Adding 106 officers to the Police Department would cost $11 million the first year, increasing to $13 million in year five, according to the budget office figures.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
Sign up for the free WJI newsletter.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin