Parisi’s Corrections Committee hears
Compelling evidence of racial bias
By Representative Joe Parisi

      During more than five hours of testimony, the Assembly Committee on Corrections and the Courts heard evidence regarding institutionalized
racial bias within our criminal justice system and how it carries over into our voting laws, particularly a provision barring ex-offenders with
felony convictions from voting upon release from incarceration.
      In one example, compelling data was presented to the committee demonstrating the inherent racial bias in many of our state’s drug laws.
While evidence shows that drug use among juvenile African Americans is lower than that of Caucasian juveniles, African American youth are
arrested and incarcerated disproportionately more than whites. Drug use that may result in a slap on the wrist or a call to one’s parents in the
suburbs often results in an arrest in poorer and predominantly African American communities.
      Due to Wisconsin’s law mandating that 17-year-olds must automatically be waived into adult court, African American youth in this situation
may actually lose their right to vote before they are of legal age. In addition, because prior offenses are often looked at when determining
punishment, African Americans are more likely than whites to have prior offenses on their records – not because they have committed more
prior offenses, but because of different standards of enforcement in different jurisdictions.
      The committee learned that while African Americans make up about 7% of Wisconsin’s population, they account for 50% of our prison
population. One in nine African Americans are unable to vote due to a felony conviction while the number for white Wisconsinites is one in-
fifty.
      The committee heard convincing testimony that not only are African Americans incarcerated and charged with felonies at an unacceptably
high rate compared to other Wisconsinites, but also that this institutionalized bias robs the African American Community of a voice in our
democratic process. While most of the bias in the system is unconscious, witnesses expressed concern regarding the timing of the original law
to ban voting upon release from prison. One of the most disturbing points brought to the committee’s attention was the fact that the law to ban
felons from voting was put on the books in Wisconsin at the same time the Voting Rights Act was making its way through Congress.
      When one considers the racial disparities built into our criminal justice system, the original implementation of this law smacks of Jim Crow
laws which were put into place to deny African Americans the right to vote. The committee also heard from numerous self-identified former
offenders, clergy, and representatives of probation and parole officers who stated that allowing these offenders to vote would help reduce
recidivism by helping to reintegrate them back into society.
      The bottom line is that our ban on allowing former offenders with felony convictions to vote upon release from incarceration is inherently
biased against African Americans, does nothing to reduce crime, wastes taxpayer dollars, and should be repealed. Thankfully the Assembly
corrections committee just recently passed legislation to repeal the ban and the bill now awaits the approval of the full Assembly.

      
State Representative Joe Parisi represents the 48th Assembly District and is the chairperson of the Assembly Committee on Corrections
and the Courts.