A Milwaukee Judge's Perspective on Segregation

Mar 10, 2017

Merriam-Webster defines the word “segregate” in two ways: “to separate or set apart from others or from the general mass,” and “to cause or force the separation of (as from the rest of society).” It defines “segregation” as the act of segregating; it gives a secondary definition of “segregation” as “the separation or isolation of a race, class or ethnic group by enforced of voluntary residence in a restricted area . . . .”

I am a judge in Milwaukee. There are many criminal cases on the docket. The majority of the people charged in those cases plead guilty, or are found guilty after a trial. That means that the majority of those people appear before me for sentencing. I sentence many of those people to serve prison time.

Sentencing someone to prison “segregates” them in the sense of the first Merriam-Webster definition. It separates them from others, from the general mass of society. As the sentencing judge, I am one of the causes of that segregation. When I sentence someone, I separate them from family, from friends, from every-day life in society.

I am keenly aware of that fact, and I struggle with it before every sentencing. As I prepare, I ask myself whether segregating this person from the life they know will make a difference. Will it protect the person’s fellow citizens? Will it prevent that person (or others) from committing similar crimes? Will it convince that person that what he or she did was wrong? Will it make a difference to the victim of the crime? Will it make a change for the better, or for the worse, in the life of the defendant, or the victim, as they head into the future?

When the person sitting at the table in front of me at sentencing is an African-American man, I ask myself more, and different, questions. I am aware that Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarcerating African-American men in the country. I know that when an African-American man goes to prison, he often leaves behind (as do most people who go to prison) people who love and need him, from partners to children to aging parents. Many of the African-American men who appear before me have battled addiction (most recently and terrifyingly, addiction to heroin). Many have been abused as children—sometimes by a parent or other trusted adult. Many dropped out of school before graduating—often because they were struggling, and didn’t have anyone to help them. Many had absent fathers, and sometimes the reason those fathers were absent was because they themselves were in prison, or were in a gang, or were addicted. Many of men before me grew up in segregated (in the “racial segregation” sense of the word) neighborhoods, and never have been outside of them. They became involved in criminal activity because they’d seen it around them all their lives, and despite the love and efforts of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, pastors, or special teachers, the pull of the familiar was too strong. I know that sending someone to prison does not solve any of these problems—it rarely provides a man with drug treatment, or an education, or emotional and psychological counseling, or job training. It does not give him a healthy, strong, supportive community.

I know all of this, even as I know that the man sitting in front of me has committed a crime. He may have put significant amounts of dangerous drugs on the streets of our city. He may have put a gun to the head of an elderly woman, or violently battered his girlfriend in front of their children. He may have pulled others into his criminal activities. He may have taken a life.

So—when I am preparing to sentence an African-American man, I have to ask myself other questions. If I sentence this man to time in prison, am I part of the problem? Does the fact that there are too many African-American men from Wisconsin in prison mean that this particular man should walk away from the fact that he held a gun to an elderly woman’s head, or committed a violent battery, or put half a kilogram of heroin into the hands of people in his community? If I sentence this man to prison, will it keep him from harming other people in the short run, only to deprive him of the tools he needs to stop harming people in the long run? Should I consider his gender and his race in considering his sentence? Should I consider anyone’s gender and race when considering their sentence?

I wish that I could say that I have the answers to these questions. All I know is that I have to keep asking them—every time.

Judge Doe is a judge who sits in Milwaukee. The judge asked to remain anonymous, the avoid parties who may appear before the court being tempted to use the remarks to influence proceedings.