The Wisconsin State Journal finds stark evidence that young black men in the state's capital region aren't benefiting from programs designed to keep youthful offenders out of the criminal justice system.
Teivon McNair started getting in trouble at school and with police shortly after the grandmother who raised him died of a stroke at age 45. McNair was just 12.
A solitary boy who struggled with being overweight and diabetic, McNair lived with relatives who moved around Dane County (Wisconsin) and Chicago. He was estranged from his mother and separated from his five younger siblings.
At age 12, McNair was arrested after a friend used his BB gun to shoot at people in their Sun Prairie neighborhood. He spent time in a series of group and foster homes, a juvenile boot camp and eventually a juvenile correctional center. By the time he was 18, he was charged with participating in the armed robbery of a Sun Prairie gas station.
McNair was headed for a common and tragic destiny for many young black men in Dane County: At any given time, nearly half of the county’s black men between 25 and 29 are in prison, jail or under some form of state supervision, according to one study.
Another study found that, in 2007, a black resident in Dane County was 97 times more likely to be incarcerated for a drug crime than a white resident – the widest racial disparity for that measure in the nation.
For now, McNair has avoided that fate. He participated in a county program that dropped the charges against him in exchange for completing community service and counseling.
But few blacks in Dane County benefit from such diversion programs, according to an analysis of electronic court records done for the Wisconsin State Journal by Court Data Technologies of Madison. The analysis was funded by a grant from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York City.
The analysis found that between Jan. 1, 2008, and Dec. 7, 2010, 6.6 percent of cases involving black defendants ended with deferred prosecutions?a little more than half of the 11.3 percent of cases involving white defendants.
For one of the most frequently charged crimes?disorderly conduct?8.2 percent of black defendants received deferred prosecutions versus 17.7 percent of white defendants. The analysis did not account for a defendant’s prior criminal record, which often is a factor in sentencing.
A slightly smaller disparity exists in Milwaukee County, the analysis found.
“The data clearly show evidence of racial disparity in deferred prosecutions,” said Pamela Oliver, a professor of sociology at UW-Madison and an expert in racial disparities in criminal justice systems. “The big question that is unanswered by these tables is why the disparity occurs.”
A persistent problem
Dane County is considered a leader in Wisconsin in diverting people from jail and prison, spending $3.5 million a year on 18 alternative programs.
Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk credits the programs with keeping the county jail population at about 1,000 inmates?the same as it was when she took office 14 years ago?at a time when Dane County’s population has ballooned by about 100,000 people. Early in her tenure, Falk vetoed a $30 million expansion of the county jail, choosing instead to offer some defendants a way to stay in the community.
But the racial imbalance persists. Roughly 44 percent of inmates in the Dane County Jail today are black compared to just 6 percent of the county’s population, said Dane County Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Teuscher, who runs the Downtown jail and the work-release facility on Madison’s South Side.
What’s keeping more black defendants from participating in alternatives to incarceration? Officials cite a number of factors, including:
• Some defendants prefer stints in the Dane County Jail to longer-term diversion programs lasting up to three years.
• Some young people accept time behind bars as a rite of passage.
• The programs are seen as overly cumbersome by some defendants, especially those lacking transportation or family support. Defendants also must pay for all treatment and classes, and some cannot afford it.
• Some defendants with criminal records don’t qualify for deferred prosecution.
Choosing jail over probation
Dane County Assistant District Attorney Everett Mitchell, who is black, is frustrated by what he sees as the casual acceptance by some black defendants of serving jail time. Mitchell said he routinely refers blacks to alternatives to incarceration, but many turn them down.
Mitchell recounts a recent case in which a 19-year-old black defendant rejected probation because he did not want to follow the conditions for staying out of jail.
“His mother was crying. She said, 'Take probation,'” Mitchell recalled. “We were all advocating for this young man. The judge asked, 'Where do you see yourself in three years?’ He said, 'I see myself in prison.'”
Mitchell said he sees as many white defendants as black ones. “But the difference is the white defendants will take (alternatives to incarceration) in a heartbeat,” he said.
An obvious barrier for some is the cost for counseling and other services, which can run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, said Pat Hrubesky, who runs the district attorney’s Deferred Prosecution Unit.
“We have no money (to help offenders pay) for direct services,” Hrubesky said. “For young people of color, it’s very difficult because those folks often have no resources. They’re typically not coming from families with insurance.”
Nor are the benefits of participating immediately obvious.
Officials need to “recognize the nature of the people we’re dealing with,” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, a former prosecutor who now runs a prison outreach program. “(They’re) impulsive, focused on short-term gain versus long-term consequences.”
Growing up, McNair thought teachers perceived him as “dumb” because he was black. Sometimes, he said, he would explode in anger?or escape.
His home life was little comfort as he bounced among relatives in Sun Prairie, Madison, Stoughton and Chicago. McNair never knew his father, a young man who died from a stray bullet in Chicago when McNair was just a baby. “I got no picture of him. Nothing.”
Until recently, McNair, now 20, had no goals – not even a vision for what life as an adult might hold.
In 2009, he was charged with a felony after an acquaintance borrowed his jacket and robbed a Sun Prairie gas station at gunpoint while McNair waited in the car. Distrustful of the police, McNair never reported it.
That arrest was a wake-up call. McNair had been incarcerated as a juvenile, and, unlike some of his peers, saw nothing cool about going to prison. When offered the chance to avoid an adult conviction, McNair took it.
'Give them something to do’
Under the guidance of Melvin Juette, McNair completed 75 hours of community service sorting and collecting clothes for the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin. He also participated in the African American Male Initiative Group run by Juette, a Chicago native paralyzed in a gang shooting when he was 16.
Juette uses his own life story to relate to the young men he works with. He quit the gang, graduated from UW-Whitewater and became a world-class wheelchair basketball player.
“Everybody in the group looked up to him,” McNair said. “He’s a black male who’s successful. We can tell him how we feel, and he understands.”
Juette acknowledges the unfairness of the criminal justice system. Blacks are more likely to be stopped for minor traffic violations, which leads to a disproportionate number of tickets and arrests. And drug laws penalize crack cocaine sales much more severely than other drug crimes, a policy that affects blacks more than whites.
“The system is prejudiced,” Juette says. “The question I have is, 'Then why do you want to get involved in it?'”
McNair is taking that advice. He’s working at a temp agency, studying computer science at Madison Area Technical College and moving toward confirmation in the Catholic Church.
What would have kept him out of the criminal justice system to begin with?
“Give them (children) something to do besides just going to school and going outside,” McNair said. “How parents are, it’s like, that’s how kids are going to be.
“I think people should do things with kids. If I had had people doing things with me, I think things would’ve been different.”
ED Note: Please click here for sidebar “Analysis: Similar Offenses Lead to Similar Sentences“
Dee Hall, a reporter for The Madison Journal, is a former John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow. The original of this story appeared Sunday July 24. For Part 2 of the three-part series, which appeared Monday July 25, please click here; for Part 3, click here. Ms. Hall welcomes comments from readers.