Sunday, September 30, 2007

Black and White World

Gov. Jim Doyle created a commission to study racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Apparently, the idea of studying racial disparities in anything is considered the sort of muddle-headed concern that sets tongues waging on the right, where any mention of race in society is met with feigned "how dare you?" indignity. Acting like they are threatened by what the commission might say, the wing-nuts conducted a pre-emptive strike, calling on a friendly law professor from Marquette’s increasingly right-wing faculty to say the disparity in Wisconsin is not that different from the national average and what’s so wrong with racial disparity, anyway.

Xoff and Soglin have pointed out the obvious bias in the McAdams approach to the study or article or whatever he is calling it these days. You do have to kind of admire the kind of balls it takes to end a piece that screams to be taken statistically seriously with a long, dubious anecdote from talk-radio’s Clarence Thomas wanna-be, James Harris. I guess the message is that we should go ahead a lock up more blacks in the hopes that Harris can walk his dog in peace.

Although McAdams need not be taken seriously, certainly the problem should be. The issue isn’t whether there is racial disparity in the criminal justice system (even McAdams admits that) – the question is how it manifests itself and what, if anything, we can do about it.

Since I began my career as a criminal defense attorney 21 years ago – the vast majority of my clients being appointments from the State Public Defender – I do have some perspective on the position my clients (I would guess 85% black) face in the criminal justice system and in society as a whole.

McAdams spends some time reviewing statistics for those released from prison after serving time. For both an identification of the issues and possible solutions, I would look at the time before someone is locked up; long before they commit a serious crime. It is that time that affects them more if they do end up getting accused a felony or even a misdemeanor; whether they get out on bail, and how they are sentenced, even whether they get charged in the first place. And, because of conditions on the street and the nature and result of interactions with police in their own neighborhoods, blacks in the city start at a significant disadvantage in the criminal justice system.

Seeing the difference in treatment is as easy as crossing the street.

I walk downtown everyday, to and from the courthouse and my office on 7th – I’m sorry – James Lovell and Wisconsin. Often, I’ll come up to a crosswalk with no traffic headed in either direction and the Don’t Walk sign glowing orange-red. Several African-Americans will be standing there, dutifully waiting for the Walk sign. I step out and start to cross. The others watch, then gingerly make their own way across the street, against the light, figuring if the white guy can get away with it, so can they. This time, anyway.

Black people in Milwaukee are far more likely than I am to get jaywalking tickets. They are far more likely to get a loitering ticket hanging around on a street corner or on the front stoop of a house. They are more likely to get a disorderly conduct ticket for talking loud out in the street or a noise complaint from a neighbor. The unpaid tickets result in commitments – to jail – for non-payment or a driver’s license revocation or they’ll take your income tax refund.

In fact, black Milwaukeeans are far more likely to have any contact with a police officer. And when they do, the quality of that interaction is dramatically different. They are far more likely to get searched, to get their name run for warrants, to have everyone around them asked for ID. This is a world most white folks are completely unfamiliar with. Officer Friendly conducting a frisk of your person and asking if you have "anything to hide"? Unheard of for us, but that’s the way it is for the citizens of Black Milwaukee, who often find themselves on the wrong end of a near police state.

Those who want to get off the streets and drive or ride in a car are also treated much differently. The pain of a ticket is one thing, but getting stopped driving down the road by police is no big deal for me. They come up to the window, get your license, check it and come back with a ticket, a warning or a pat on the back for good driving.

If you want to know what the difference is for a black person, ask a black professional. He’ll tell you that, while I would be able to drive around for months with a broken taillight, he will be stopped or any equipment violation, even something ludicrous like having snow covering a back-up light. Once stopped, he’ll tell you he will often be pulled out of the car and frisked. Even dressed up for a night out, his passengers will be asked for ID and run for warrants. He will be asked if the police can search the car, for no reason at all. He will describe an often humiliating, disrespectful encounter.

All this scrutiny on the streets and in cars, of course, results in small matters suddenly resulting in arrests. Unpaid fines, certainly. Sometimes, recreational drugs are found, open intoxicants, even a gun (unless it’s unloaded and cased in the trunk, illegal to carry in a car). You might try to avoid an outstanding warrant and give your brother’s name (obstructing). You might even try to run (resisting). Did you know that you can be arrested and made to bail out of jail for any traffic violation, like a bad license light? Don’t worry – if you’re a white guy, you probably won’t have to worry about it. If you are black, you do.

The result is that few black people who have lived in the city for a long time have a totally clean record if they are arrested for a misdemeanor or worse. The stupid tickets they got on the street or in a car will follow them to the criminal system and may affect charging and bail decisions. There are other issues in the more advanced stages of the system that result in the disparity, of course, and perhaps I’ll address those in future posts.

But the combined effect of the drip-drip-drip of petty ticket enforcement and undue scrutiny during police encounters results in a sense of distrust and injustice in the inner city. The stark fact is that young black men are all too familiar with the inside of a police car and a jail cell, if only for silly tickets. Young white men are much less likely to face the same scrutiny, build the same record or be treated the same way if accused of something more serious.

The bottom line is that blacks and whites don’t come into the criminal system with the same baggage. It should be no surprise that they come out of the system with different results.


Anonymous said...

I found it funny how Doyle funded this study on racial disparity in prisons and then at the same time funded increased police in the central city of Milwaukee. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul! Typical Doyle pandering to his minority voting base as well as his white voting base.

Unknown said...

Very astute observations, sir. Keep up the good work. I wish this kind of insight was available in more mass-media type outlets, like the JS.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight: Mc Adams, a professional scholar who regularly examines data and statistics is full of it, but Mike Plaisted and his convenient bag of random observations and anecdotes is to be taken at his word?

Show us the numbers to back up all the claims you make, or retract them. Next, please explain--using the nunbers Mc Adams cites--why he is full of it, or why his munbers are wrong. Mike, you always tell us how you have all the facts, so why not share them with us.

And before you attempt your attacks, calling me racist neo-con whatever, know that I sympathize with the special problems african americans face. We happen to work together very regularly too. I just don't think Doyle's stupid study will solve anything. What might solve the problem are reasonable programs which reward stable families and create incentives for students who achieve in school. Heck, I'd pay students to be in school and a bonus too if they met yearly growth targets.

Don't take too long with those facts....We're waiting.....

Mike Plaisted said...

I didn't say McAdams' numbers are wrong. So he says Wisconsin's disparity is about the national average -- so what? It's still a disparity. He says the disparity is OK. He says drug use by whites and blacks should be treated differently. He closes with the dramatic pronouncement that no one should side with people who shoot little girls in the head". Like anyone would. The fact that he's "full of it" has nothing to do with his numbers, it has to do with his wildly unscientific side-comments and his (and your) attack on Doyle for making an attempt to figure it out.

Rewarding "stable families" and creating "incentives" for those who succeed in school means what in terms of disparity in incarceration? All that information is presented at sentencing, it's all factored in, and the disparity is still there. I'm afraid that you are saying that, if someone comes from and "unstable" family or does not "succeed" in school, that they get what they deserve. Say it ain't so, Patrick.

Anonymous said...


My comments about incentives, etc...were more aimed at helping those in poverty, not sentencing. Poverty, not race, is the issue. Like the left, conservatives seek to end poverty too because we know that will reduce crime and increase reading scores. We differ on the methods.

And Doyle should be the real target of your post. This is his second term in Madison, so he can't really blame things on Thompson, can he? Rather than study the problem so many of us are convinced exists, why hasn't he done something? To provide alternatives to a life of crime? To fight poverty? To bring genuine change to education?

P.S. Where are the facts on jay-walking, etc... I'll wait.

Mike Plaisted said...

No, but Doyle can blame some things on the political posturing by Republicans on the state budget right now. "To provide alternatives to a life of crime? To fight poverty? To bring genuine change to education?" Who is he supposed to be, FDR?

If you want "facts" on jaywalking and other bullshit tickets given every day to black Milwaukeeans, go to the Milwaukee Municipal Court any day of the week. Amoung the hundreds in the waiting room there, try to find more than 20 white people. Then multiply that by three or four, for the people who don't fight the ticket. Are you saying blacks and whites have the same expereinces with cops on the street and in traffic stops? Do I really need statistics to back that up, or can't you just feel it?

The line between class and race is indeed thin in these issues (by the way, 15 of those 20 whites you'll find in the waiting room are poor-to-working class). But I've never heard conservatives offer anything but boot-strap theory and "fix broken families" and stuff like that. Poor (and minority) people could never do enough to "prove" to conservatives that they "deserve" assistance. I don't know why they should have to.

Anonymous said...

I used to go through the airport without ever being searched or "padded down". I mean never. I am a frequent business traveler and I had never once been asked to "step aside" for further search. I was recently involved in a tragedy that took a limb. I wear a prosthesis. Since that time I have never, NOT been searched in an airport. While I am sure that my leg could potentially be a great hiding place for drugs or explosives, I am quite convinced that the experience has more to do with my differences than anything else. I am a white, middle-class mother. I had never been padded-down before. If you have never had this experience, I can tell you if feels an awful lot like getting your ass grabbed in a bar, its just wrong and icky. I avoid air travel whenever possible. When I have to fly now I have to prepare myself mentally for the experience I am going to have. People see me differently now, they make judgments, they treat me differently. I'm just wondering, do you need a study to find out how many amputees get searched vs. non-amputees? Or is it possible to recognize that as a society, we look at some people differently. We make judgments that hurt and humiliate our fellow citizens. Do we really need to "study" this problem? Do we really need to prove it exists? When you look into your heart don't you know that it does?

Anonymous said...

I sympathize, Guess. Another middle-aged, middle-class mother -- but also with a somewhat invisible disability, a metal insert in one shoe for a shorter leg. So the searches started for me as soon as the airport security started.

Believe me, it's actually better now than the very public humiliations then, in the name of our homeland.

So with that and the ever-worsening discomforts of travel once we actually are allowed to get on a plane, and the ever-worsening delays, I'm avoiding air travel, too. It's not my idea of how to start a vacation, being -- as you say -- treated like meat in a singles bar. And paying more all the time for it, too.

Anonymous said...

Guess and Anon 10:08,


Anonymous said...

so that's it

Anonymous said...

anon 4:41, all I was trying to say is that we don't need a study to know that the police treat some people differently.

Anonymous said...

Guess - Well there's a news flash. Except it's not limited to the police. I would dare say that nearly everyone treats some people differently. It's human nature.

But that's totally beside the point. While it sucks, your situation is a necessary reality (What if they didn't check amputees?), and to compare it to racial disparities in the judicial system is a bit of a stretch, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding me? NO, clearly I don't think its a strech or I wouldn't have made the comment. It is not human nature to treat people differently because of the way they look. There are dozens of studies done about small children, and guess what? They don't treat people differently based on color or appearance.This is learned behavior, no doubt!

I'm sorry you don't see a connection, its a shame. Here's the connection...I don't expect to be exempt from searches because I am an amputee. I also don't think that I should be searched 100% of the time because I am an amputee. I don't think that Blacks should be exempt from random police stops, I also don't think they should have to come to expect them. Our appearance should not dictate our treament by society.

Get it?

Anonymous said...


You're comparing a study on possible racial disparities affecting people's civil liberties to inconveniences you experience at airports. That's a stretch.

Last I checked, air travel is a privilege, not a right. You don't want to be checked 100% of the time? Great. What is an acceptable rate? And how are the security people supposed to distinguish you from another amputee who might be a security risk or smuggling drugs or whatever?

Anonymous said...

It's comforting to know that you think the only thing affecting the rights of the disabled are security checks. You must live in a wonderful white bread world. Enjoy your delusions! I live in a small town where I can't even enter the courthouse without help.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the one who made this about security checks. If you had better examples of how your plight is akin to racism in the judicial system, you should have made them earlier.

My points were:

a.) Being checked at an airport is not the same as having your civil liberties violated by the government based on race.

b.) While unfortunate, your being scrutinized at the airport is necessary for the safety of all travelers.

Those are hardly delusions of a whitebread utopia. And since you chose to not answer my question and instead attempt to insult me, I'll assume you concede those points (now there's a delusion).

Anonymous said...

gee, silly me, I thougth the fact that my local courthouse isn't even accesable to me was a pretty good example of my civil liberties being violated. The fact that I can't even get throught the front door without having to request help is a bit more than an inconvienience.

Do I think you live in a white bread Utopia where if you haven't experineced it it doesn't exist? Oh yes I do!

Anonymous said...

You don't respond to my questions and you hurl insults and accusations for which you have no basis. Feeling backed into a corner, are we?

Unless you can come up with a valid argument in response to my points, this discussion has become tiresome and I think we're done here.

Anonymous said...

Anony, I am not here to cry about the plight of the handicapped in the United States, I was simply trying to make the point, which you obviously missed, that the police, the court systems, the people around us do treat certain groups differently. I am not saying that being handicapped is akin to having you're civil rights trounced on a regular basis. But let me ask you you think I have a civil right to expect the same treatment in the airport as you? Do you think I have a civil right to be able to roll in the front door of my local courthouse? Do you think I have a civil right to be able to ride the same busses and trains you do? Do you think I have a civil right to be able to eat in the same restaurants? Well? I guess I did.

Roll in my shoes for a couple of days and tell me that as a society we respect everyone's civil liberties equally!

Anonymous said...

I didn't miss your point at all. If you look at my post from 5:13 PM...

"I would dare say that nearly everyone treats some people differently."

I then made the point that airport security checks of the nature you described are an unfortunate but necessary reality, not an example of the discrimination and racism being discussed in this topic. The fact I said it’s unfortunate (actually, I think I said it sucks) should have indicated that I was at least a little sympathetic.

I had hoped a lively discussion (within the context of the topic at hand) would ensue where you would offer perspectives that would help me have a better understanding of people in your situation.

But you offered no counterpoints. Instead, you went on a tangent about whitebread delusions and courthouses and trains and restaurants. You accused me of thinking the disabled don't face any challenges or have the same rights as anyone else. Where you got that, I don't know – I never referred to anything but airport security. Did you think that because I challenged your ideas, I was an insensitive jerk who believed disabled people are crybabies that should shut up and get over it? Rather than challenging my ideas, you tried to assault my character without knowing anything about me.

Unfortunately, that's indicative of the level of debate in this country. The exchange of ideas has given way to bickering and personal attacks.

We’re hopelessly off-topic, and this could go on forever. So this will be my last post on this.

Have a nice day.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I came off in a rather nasty tone, it was not my intent. I am rather emotional on the opic as my personal situation and the struggles relating to my disability and health have changed dramatically in the last couple of months. I Understand what you were saying, but i did not think you were hearing me, and I still don't think you are. The fact that you think we are hopelessly off-topic and I think its all so very connected tells me we are not speaking the same language. There are times when the limited nature of this comment section does more to confuse than to clarify.

You made this comment..."airport security checks of the nature you described are an unfortunate but necessary reality, not an example of the discrimination and racism being discussed in this topic." That statemtent, in my opinion, is so simple. It is discrimination to think that because I have a prothsesis I pose a threat. This is not a necessary evil. You have plenty of places in and on your body where you could hide drugs or weapons. I may have one more, but that does not make me a threat and by suggesting that I am you are discriminating against me. Not giving me access to public transportation is discriminatory. I'm not important enought to inconvenience the system and provide an alternative for. For goodness sake, who needs public transportation more?

Anyway, I can get a bit fierce on this topiC. If that is what came through instead of my passion for equal rites for every American, I regret it.