Executive Director Citizen Action of Wisconsin
When we announced Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s endorsement of Judge Joe Donald for State Supreme Court last week, I knew the decision would be controversial with many progressive activists and leaders.
We had an extensive endorsement process, and Citizen Action’s large and diverse board of directors made the decision.
If you scan our board, it shows a number of strong leaders who can’t be steamrolled by anyone.
Nevertheless, I knew some of our supporters around the state would be surprised.
Since we announced our endorsement, I’ve had a number of excellent conversations with progressives who support JoAnne Kloppenburg.
Kloppenburg lost a tight race at the height of the historic protests against Scott Walker’s war against working people, winning the heartfelt allegiance of many progressives across Wisconsin.
Most of these conversations have been highly constructive, because progressives understand that people who share fundamental values can honestly disagree.
In most of these conversations, we agreed to disagree and to together in the general election.
I fully understand why many progressives strongly support Judge Kloppenburg, and respect their position.
A vocal minority of activists and leaders have taken the position that no good progressive can support Donald over Kloppenburg.
Some even accused Citizen Action of betraying our mission and values by endorsing Donald.
I am writing this blog to challenge that position.
For me personally, there is an extremely compelling reason to support Donald.
He is the best candidate to address one of the greatest moral problems of our age and the greatest injustice in the criminal justice system: the mass and disproportionate incarceration of African Americans for nonviolent offenses.
The massive increase in incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses, triggered by the so-called war on drugs and other alleged “tough on crime” policies have created a system where millions of African American men have been imprisoned for crimes that wouldn’t lead to the incarceration of similarly situated middle class whites, and are after release, frozen out of the economic system like second class citizens.
The use of the penal system to hold African Americans in a lower economic and social status is not new, as is stunningly shown in Douglas Blackmon’s book “Slavery by Another Name.”
The loophole in the 14th Amendment used to oppress African Americans in the Jim Crow era was the provision that those convicted of crimes are excluded from constitutional rights (never mind the absence of due process or fair trials).
The shocking affront to all that we believe about basic freedom in America that has built steam since the 1980s (and participated in by both Democrats and Republicans) has been worse in Wisconsin, where the African American male and Native American male incarceration rates are the highest in the nation.
The rate for African American men is more than 11 times the rate for white men.
According to an excellent UWM Study, over half of African American men in Milwaukee County in their 30s and 40s have spent time in state prison.
The cost of this mass incarceration has not only been overwhelming for individuals subjected to prison and then branded with a criminal record, it has cost the state government $3.8 billion since 1990 to incarcerate the many African American men sentenced to prison.
As a point of comparison, Wisconsin spends on corrections more than double what Minnesota spends each year.
This is not just one issue on a laundry list where we should check the box, it is one that requires exceptional public focus.
The only way this modern form of racial oppression is going to be overthrown is if all progressives work to make it a moral issue that transforms the Wisconsin political landscape.
One of the things that is needed is to make it a leading issue in judicial elections, especially elections to the Supreme Court.
These are the only statewide elections where candidates actually talk to the public about our criminal justice system.
While there are certainly many important issues in the Supreme Court race, the mass incarceration of African American and Native American men should matter to all friends of justice and equality.
It also maters that Judge Joe Donald has by far the best record on this issue.
Judge Donald was one of the judicial leaders who created the drug treatment court in Milwaukee County, and was its first presiding judge.
The court works to treat drug offenders, and address its fundamental causes, such as substance addiction and poverty, to dramatically reduce the number of non-violent offenders who are imprisoned.
An article in Milwaukee Magazine tells the whole story of Judge Donald’s leadership in the creation and operation of this critical reform.
I am sure if you support Judge Kloppenburg, you are thinking that she is on the right side of this issue.
I don’t doubt that, but if you listen to all three candidates discuss the issue, any fair minded person would reach the conclusion that Judge Donald is the only candidate making a clear case that we need fundamental structural reform of the criminal justice system to reverse systematic violation of fundamental human rights.
Watch this short video posted by WisconsinEye and observe the difference in tone and moral clarity on this issue between Donald and Kloppenburg. Also, prepare to be appalled by Justice Bradley’s claim that race is not an issue in our legal system.
On this moral outrage of Wisconsin’s systematic mass incarceration of young African American men, Judge Joe Donald has by far the best record, and the more clearly articulated position, in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court election.
For that reason, I am proud that Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s board of directors chose to endorse him.