Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, April 3, 2017

Panelists examine the consequences of rising incarceration

Panelists examine the consequences of rising incarceration

New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor frequently writes about inequality, race, and incarceration. Most recently, she has focused on the consequences of incarceration on the communities left behind as well as “the stereotypical way that we look at who’s to blame that these families are this way.”

As UW–Madison’s Spring Public Affairs Writer in Residence, Alcindor participated in a panel discussion with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Sociology Professor Mike Massoglia on February 21 at the Pyle Center. La Follette School Director and Professor Don Moynihan moderated.

Alcindor, who grew up in Miami, is particularly interested in issues related to women raising children without fathers, siblings left behind, grandparents doing double duty to provide for their families as incarceration rates – especially among African-American men – have increased six-fold since 1980. “What’s left is people who are very much struggling,” she said.

Massoglia’s work focuses on the social consequences of the expansion of the U.S. penal system, which he argues is one of the defining features of the last 30 years in American society. While violent crime has decreased dramatically, he said the racial and geographic concentration of incarceration is problematic.

“Rates of incarceration are approximately five to eight times higher for blacks than for whites,” said Massoglia, adding that Wisconsin is among the worst in terms of its racial disproportionality of incarceration, and Dane County is among the most problematic counties.

Chisholm, who began his legal career representing prisoners at the Waupun Correctional Institution, sees this first-hand as the chief prosecutor in the state’s most densely populated county. “They’re still human beings, they’re still fellow citizens who have a whole array of needs and are entitled to the fundamental respect that you would give any other person,” he said.

The criminal justice system, Chisholm said, needs to be honest about its historical practices and legacies that began in the mid-1970s – “when we went on this path ... to solve every problem we could by tossing people in jail and prison at the same time that we deinstitutionalized everybody in the mental health system without having any assets in the community.”

A graduate of UW–Madison’s Law School, Chisholm believes a public-health approach is needed to address the issues that have led to this “incarceral state.” He pointed to work by Peter Tempelis (MPA, JD ’06), who previously led the Domestic Violence Unit for the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office.

“A family exposed to violence, we look on as a public health crisis,” Chisholm said. “Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is now co-located with our domestic violence providers. We wrap services around them.

“We’re taking the same approach with Housing First for the mentally ill, so instead of trying to get them services in 50 different places, we find stable housing for them first and then wrap the services around them,” he said.

Alcindor and Massoglia also emphasized the current disjuncture between the politics of crime and the facts of crime. “We have discussions and entire campaigns that are just inconsistent with the facts about crime and immigration,” Massoglia said.

Alcindor, who interviewed voters across the country during the 2016 presidential campaign, is less-than optimistic that the U.S. criminal justice system will change anytime soon. People who voted for President Donald Trump “do not think that what’s going to solve their problems or make America better is being more supportive of prisoners and of changing the criminal justice system to help those who are in it,” she said.

The panel discussion, with 100-plus attendees and more questions than time allowed, is available on the WisconsinEye website

Alcindor, who also is a contributor to MSNBC, focuses on social issues affecting national political discourse and covered the 2016 presidential election. She has a master’s degree in broadcast news and documentary from New York University and previously worked for USA TODAY and Newsday.

She recently was honored in a tribute to the late “PBS NewsHour” anchor Gwen Ifill for reflecting qualities that were the hallmark of Ifill’s career—passion for non-partisan reporting, intelligent and eloquent storytelling, and commitment to journalism’s public service mission.

A La Follette School faculty affiliate, Massoglia teaches classes on criminology, delinquency, and deviance, and he is director of the Center for Law, Society & Justice at UW–Madison. Chisholm, a native of Milwaukee, received his law degree from UW–Madison in 1994 and has served as Milwaukee County’s district attorney since 2006.

As Writer in Residence from February 20 to 23, Alcindor spoke with students in classes at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She also met with small groups of students to discuss topics of mutual interest.