As discussed in Part I, I have gathered data on the Wisconsin prison inmates who are 70 or older. Out of an initial set of 299 inmates, I selected a representative subset of 100 in order to take a closer look at the inmates’ most recent convictions. Thirty-eight of the 100 were convicted of more than one offense in their most recent felony cases. In these cases, I focused only on the conviction that resulted in the longest sentence.
In reviewing the offenses of conviction, what stands out most starkly is the prevalence of sexual offenses.
Nationally, the number of senior citizens in prison has grown dramatically in recent years. In Wisconsin, for instance, the number of prisoners aged 60 or older grew from just 202 (or 1.2 percent of the total) in 2000 to 1,231 (5.4 percent) by the end of 2016. Such increases should be of public concern for a number of reasons, including the exceptionally high costs of incarcerating the elderly. To a great extent, these costs are related to the prevalence of chronic illnesses and physical and mental disabilities among older inmates. One national study estimated that the average cost of imprisoning a senior is about twice the overall average. In general, it is less costly to manage chronic health problems in the community than in prisons, which are not designed to function as assisted living facilities, and which tend to be located in rural areas at some distance from specialized treatment providers.
Fiscal and humanitarian concerns alike have sparked considerable interest in recent years in “compassionate release” and other mechanisms that might hasten the return of elderly prisoners to the community. On the other hand, there are also countervailing concerns that early release might endanger the public or depreciate the seriousness of the underlying criminal offenses. On both sides of the debate, there seems a tendency to rely on unexamined stereotypes about who the old folks in prison are—the frail, harmless grandparent serving an excessively harsh sentence for a long-ago offense, versus the confirmed predator whose dangerousness can never be fully erased by age.
In order to develop a clearer picture of this population, and with the help of two diligent research assistants, I set out to gather some data on the Wisconsin prisoners who are aged 70 or older.
“It requires little knowledge of human nature to anticipate that those who had long been regarded as an inferior and subject race would, when suddenly raised to the rank of citizenship, be looked upon with jealousy and positive dislike, and that state laws might be enacted or enforced to perpetuate the distinctions that had before existed.” – Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 306 (1879)
As ominously foreshadowed by the Supreme Court in 1879, current state and federal laws and practices continuously present disadvantages to people of color. Removed from enslavement and the oppressive nature of the Jim Crow Era, today many of the participants in our justice system and in politics are blind to discrepancies within this nation’s criminal justice system and erroneously believe that the black defendant enjoys the same rights as the white defendant. The black defendant is seldom given a jury that racially represents him or her, and this lack of representation is a product of case precedent, judicial reasoning, and discriminatory practices. In Wisconsin, these discriminatory practices take the form of both state and federal jury pooling procedures. As such, the purpose of this blog post is to draw attention to the disproportionate jury pooling practices in Wisconsin circuit courts as well as federal district courts in our state, and to provide a forum for debate on this important issue.
Federal Jury Pooling in Wisconsin and the Depleted African American Voting Population
The right to a jury is so critical to the makeup of our system of justice that the Constitution mentions juries in four different sections. However, while individuals have a constitutional right to a jury, the pooling and selection of such juries is not always constitutionally executed. Both the Eastern and Western District Courts of Wisconsin have jury pooling practices that raise constitutional concerns due to the disproportional impact that those practices have on black criminal defendants.