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Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System


December 18, 2019 - Since 2015, through the long-established Milwaukee Community Justice Council (CJC), Milwaukee County’s criminal justice system leadership has been committed to the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC). The Foundation selected Milwaukee County and 52 other sites nationwide to safely reduce over-incarceration and reevaluate the way they use the local jails.

Since joining the SJC Network, the CJC and system stakeholders have implemented various strategies to reduce over-reliance on the local jail in Milwaukee County. Since 2008, there has been a 25% decrease in jail population. In addition to these necessary reductions, MacArthur Foundation also encourages SJC sites to take a deeper look at racial and ethnic disparities in the system.

When discussing mass incarceration, it is impossible not to factor race into the conversation. Black men, who are the main targets of mass incarceration, have been funneled into jails and prisons at higher rates than any other identity all over the country. Between the House of Correction in Franklin and the Criminal Justice Facility downtown, about 65% of those incarcerated are black men. This is a result of historically racist practices that have created the reality we are in today, so it is right that a central pillar of the SJC is to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.

Some of the strategies underway, such as implementing a mental health crisis assessment response team (CART) and expanding deferred prosecution options for those who have experienced drug addiction or trauma, reduce disparities by addressing issues that disproportionately affect people of color. However, there is much more that can and should be done.

The MacArthur Foundation promotes several domains that would indicate if SJC sites are moving towards reducing racial and ethnic disparities:

  1. Leadership is committed to achieving reductions in racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system and is willing to be held publicly accountable for the results of this work.
  2. Structures for collaboration and action to address disparities include community members and those with lived experience.
  3. Quantitative and qualitative data identifying disparities across justice system decision points and potential drivers of those disparities are collected.
  4. Strategies that are informed by data and purposefully seek to increase racial equity in the criminal justice system are implemented.
  5. Measurable reductions in disparities have been achieved by reducing the system involvement of people of color.
  6. A plan to maintain efforts to reduce disparities on an ongoing basis has been developed.


These characteristics are in line with what local and statewide leaders are advocating within government agencies. Governor Evers’ Executive Order 59 requires state employees to receive racial equity training and every agency to implement an equity and inclusion action plan. This is much like the Resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis that was introduced by County Executive Abele and Supervisor Marcelia Nicholson in May 2019.

The CJC has met with key criminal justice leaders in Milwaukee County to discuss where their agencies stand and what action has been taken - or will be taken - to address the six characteristics listed above. After all the information is compiled, the CJC Executive Committee will create a strategic plan to reduce disparities and make our County more equitable.

To address implicit or unconscious bias among employees, the CJC’s Race, Equity, and Procedural Justice Committee coordinates a county-wide convening on racial equity in the justice system. For five years, the courts have closed for a professional development opportunity for county personnel. Last year, the convening focused on white privilege and how that privilege affects our perceptions. This year, the committee is teaming up with Milwaukee Film’s Black Lens program for the February 2020 convening, and plan to show a film that depicts the intersection of race and the criminal justice system.

In addition, through strategic partnerships made by the Office on African American Affairs (OAAA), a number of racial equity trainings - required for county employees and supervisors - have been conducted. These include a 16-hour “Unlearning Racism” course led by the YWCA and other trainings offered by the Government Alliance for Race and Equity (GARE).

Despite these efforts, conferences and trainings alone will not address disparities. There is much more that must be done to make the criminal justice system more equitable, and the CJC is committed to making it happen.

Milwaukee Community Justice Council


633 West Wisconsin Avenue - Suite 406, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53203

(414) 435-1250




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