Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wisconsin leads the nation in what?

I suspect the Venn diagram for people who listen to This American Life and people who read this blog is either a circle or a figure eight.  In case it is the latter, I wanted to point out that last week's episode on policing is very well done.  You can listen to it here

Of particular interest to me, and perhaps interesting to others given Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's apparent interest in becoming President of the USA, was the shows mention that Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration of African-Americans per capita of any state in the Country.  At first, I could not believe this was true.  However, this paper put out by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Workforce and Training Institute, cites U.S. Census Bureau statistics that support the claim.  

The paper deals with the incarceration rate per capita of African-American males (I couldn't find similar statistics that deal with African-American females).  In 2010, 12.8% of Wisconsin's African-American men of working age were incarcerated in state prisons or local jails.  The national average was 6.7%.  Wisconsin's rate is 1.9 times higher than the national average.  By way of comparison, Wisconsin's rate of incarceration for white males is slightly lower than the national average (1.2% in Wisconsin versus a national average of 1.3%).

Not only is Wisconsin's rate of incarceration of African-American males much higher than the national average, it is much higher than the next highest state. Oklahoma has 9.7% of its working age African American males.  So Wisconsin's rate is 1.3 times higher than the Oklahoma (or, if you prefer, Oklahoma's incarceration rate is only 76% of Wisconsin's).  

I'm so astonished by these statistics that I do not know what to make of them. The difference between Wisconsin and the national average is big enough that there has to be an explanation.  What do you think Mr. Torvik, is racism the reason for this large gap? If it were, one might expect that the states in the former Confederacy would have high rates of incarceration. But note that of the top ten (bottom ten?) rates of incarceration, there are only three states in the South, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. Finally, note that Wisconsin more than double the national average when it comes to its percent of Native American males that are incarcerated (7.6% in Wisconsin versus 3.1% nationally).

I suppose that with any ranking of states, some state is going to end up being at the top (or bottom). But it is hard to see how leading the Country in this particular category is something that Wisconsinites should feel proud of.  


  1. That is a disturbing statistic.

    I doubt that Wisconsin is significantly more (or less) racist than its neighbors. Could be, but I doubt it.

    It I had to guess, I'd propose "the small number effect" as a possible culprit here. Using ratios and percentages on small numbers can be misleading, or at least prone to creating outliers. I'd be interested to know where Wisconsin ranks in terms of raw numbers of working-age African-American males. I suspect (but don't know) that it's near the bottom in that category, which would make the per-capita number at least a little bit less, well, incriminating.

  2. I couldn't find anything on working-age African-American males, but Wisconsin ranks 30th in terms of percentage of population that is African-American. 6.07% of Wisconsin's population is African-American. Oklahoma, which was in 2nd place on the incarceration rate list is 24th at 7.96%. Louisiana,7th on the incarceration list, has the second largest percentage of African-Americans as a percentage of population with 31.98%. You might disagree but I do not think 30th out of 50 ranks as near the bottom.


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