It was no surprise for local members of the criminal justice system to learn in January that black adults in Rock County are arrested at a rate seven times higher than white adults.
They had asked for the data as they considered what to do about the problem.
They are local law enforcement, prosecutors, attorneys and others members of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
They posed their question to the county’s new data cruncher, sociologist Kendra Schiffman.
Schiffman analyzed county law enforcement agencies’ numbers. She found that in 2016, African Americans comprised 5 percent of the adult population but accounted for more than 27.5 percent of adult arrests.
The numbers were similar in 2017.
Now, some council members are pointing to the racial disparity and calling for action.
Others say they first need more study.
“This is very preliminary data, and I think we have be careful with statistics not to jump to conclusions,” said the county’s new sheriff, Troy Knudson.
“There’s this whole belief that prison population and arrest rates have to mirror population, and if not, somebody is racist,” said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore. “The issue is much more complex than that.”
But council members Marc Perry, who trains police and others in understanding racial bias, and Lonnie Brigham Jr., a member of the Janesville police African American Liaison Advisory Committee, said officials know enough to start working on solutions.
Council members asked for data instead of anecdotes, and now they have it, Brigham said, adding: “That being said, what is going to be done about it?”
At the end of the council’s Jan. 17, meeting, Perry pointed to studies showing Wisconsin among the worst in racial disparities in the nation.
He said local data tells a similar story.
“We have to actually own that it exists and start having conversations about solutions,” Perry said.
Moore and Knudson seemed receptive to talking about solutions, at least at some point.
“We need to explore what we are seeing here in Rock County, and if there are some things we can change, we should do so,” Moore said.
But the law enforcement leaders urged caution about quick judgments.
Knudson noted Schiffman looked at only 2016 and 2017 data.
Numbers from a longer period would be more telling “to really understand the problem and the issue,” Knudson said.
Knudson said he’d also like to see scrutiny of the details of some individual arrests and of those arrested, “and then hopefully from those investigations, it will point to further aspects that will need to be studied.”
The unspoken factor
Poverty, high school graduation rates and parenting problems have all been shown to contribute to criminality, Moore said.
Schiffman’s statistics also show that African American adults in Rock County were nearly three times more likely to be poor than local adult whites in 2017.
At the January meeting, Perry asked Schiffman if the numbers showed race as a bigger factor than poverty, and she said yes.
“People sometimes use poverty, class or education to dismiss or explain it away because they don’t want race be a factor,” Perry said. “But if poverty, education, are factors, race also is a factor. It’s the one factor that people don’t want to admit to, though. Nobody wants race be (a factor), but given the gross disproportionality, there’s no way that it’s not, Perry said.
Moore said one factor affecting Janesville arrests is that police spend a lot of time in near-west side neighborhoods, where minority members are concentrated, so the result is that black people might be arrested more often.
Nationally, critics have said the over-policing of black neighborhoods is part of the dynamic that leads to black men being imprisoned at rates far exceeding those of whites.
“Our responsibility is to address crime, and if we identify neighborhoods that are plagued with it, we will put resources there,” Moore said.
And there are times when officers have no choice but to make an arrest, such as in the case of violent crimes, Moore said.
Moore has been praised for his steps to address race in his department.
Janesville police trained in “implicit bias,” the notion that people might not realize they are acting on the basis of prejudices they don’t know they have.
Follow-up training in “procedural justice” also addressed the problem, and ongoing training is needed, Moore said.
Perry has provided similar training to Rock County sheriff’s deputies.
Moore also established advisory committees of Janesville African Americans and Latinos.
Those actions were in response to national trends of conflict between minorities and police and did not reflect problems with bias among police, Moore said.
Brigham praised Janesville police for their efforts and acknowledged police have big job.
But Brigham said he has felt prejudice since moving from Chicago to Janesville 19 years ago, including being followed while shopping and being stopped repeatedly at 3 a.m. when he left home to catch a train to Chicago, until police became familiar with him.
Beloit police Capt. Thomas Stigler asked at last month’s meeting why the data were not broken down by jurisdiction. Other members agreed and asked Schiffman to report on the department-by-department arrest statistics at a future meeting.
Local Hispanics/Latinos comprise less than 2 percent of the county adult population, and their rate of arrest was even lower than their proportion of the population, Schiffman found.
But Schiffman said the data on Latinos might not be perfect because they might be identified as white by the arresting officer.
Schiffman looked at types of crime and found black adults accounted for 30 percent of drug-crime arrests in 2017, 32 percent of violent crimes and 22 percent of property crimes but again only 5 percent of the adult population.
Schiffman also found local black adults who were arrested were imprisoned at a rate 1.5 times higher than arrested whites in 2016 and 1.7 times more in 2017.
“All this data shows is that there’s disparity. It doesn’t tell us why or what to do to change that,” Schiffman said in an interview. “But it identifies important patterns that we need to look at further to understand why and what we can do about it.”
Rock County may soon begin an effort that could improve the statistics: A program that would stop the practice of keeping people in jail pending trial only because they can’t afford to pay bail.
The program would use data—such as number of crimes committed, age and record of showing up for court in previous cases—to predict a person’s likelihood to show up for court proceedings. Bail decisions would be based more on these tested criteria and not on factors such as race.
Because black people in Rock County are disproportionately poor, the bail program could be especially helpful to African Americans, said Lance Horoziewski, Division of Children, Youth and Families for Rock County Human Services and chairman of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
That program is on hold, however, because Rock and six other Wisconsin counties that want to start it can’t get permission for a private service provider, JusticePoint, to access a federal criminal database known as NCIC, to check suspects’ criminal backgrounds. Officials are hopeful they will come up with a solution.
Kelly Mattingly, a state public defender on the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, said much work remains to be done.
“Race is a tough thing to talk about, and it’s a particularly tough to talk about on something like the CJCC, when you want everyone to contribute to the conversation and come up with solutions,” Mattingly said. “So we don’t say, ‘We think you’re racist and you’re racist and you’re racist, and you need to stop that,’ because it’s not going to accomplish anything.”
Data can help the discussion, Horoziewski said, because it could, eventually, help the council to focus on a specific problem “without making it personal.”
Council members recently reviewed a report from another CJCC in Charleston County, South Carolina, that has been analyzing its own, similar data.
The Charleston County report writers say that disparities in the criminal justice system can be traced to problems in the system but also to “education, poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance use disorders (that) often exist in the context of overall social disadvantage.”
The report goes on to describe how this situation is so hard to overcome, saying these conditions increase the risk of being jailed or imprisoned, which can make these conditions worse, “reducing a person’s ability to re-enter the community successfully and making it more likely he or she will return to jail or prison.”