Posted on August 17, 2018

Wisconsin Youth Arrest Rates Falling Faster for Whites Than African-Americans

Lisa Speckhard Pasque, Cap-Times, August 16, 2018

The number of kids arrested and held in juvenile correctional institutions has been steadily declining in Wisconsin.

That’s the good news, according to a recent report from Race to Equity, a project of Kids Forward. The bad news? African-American youth are three times as likely and American Indians almost twice as likely as white youth to be arrested in Wisconsin in 2016.

The report, “The Complex Maze of the Juvenile Justice System in Wisconsin and Its Impact on Youth of Color,” doesn’t stop with the problem. There are opportunities to change the system, it says, through both major legislative reform and community action.


But while arrest rates and youth commitments are declining, they’re falling faster for white youth. From 2003 to 2013, racial and ethnic disparities in youth justice increased significantly, the report says.

African-American youth were 8.2 times as likely as white youth to be committed to juvenile facilities in 2003, but 15 times as likely to be committed in 2013.

Other disparities include:

  • In 2016, there were 57 arrests per 1,000 white youth, 99 arrests per every 1,000 American Indian youth, and 193 arrests per every 1,000 African-American youth.
  • In 2016, African-American youth aged 10 to 16 made up 47 percent of the population in juvenile detention facilities, although the demographic accounts for just 10 percent of Wisconsin’s youth population.

The report emphasized that the disparities do not exist because youth of color engage in more criminal behavior. Instead, the report pointed to contributing factors like racial bias, where offenses are located, and “differential police policies and practices,” among others.

A few examples: When police target low-income, urban neighborhoods, that can lead to “disproportionate contact with youth of color,” it says. Even though white youth are at least equally likely to sell or use illegal drugs, they’re arrested at half the rate of African-American youth. On those same lines, youth of color are more likely to use and sell drugs in public places, while white youth engage in those same illicit activities in the privacy of their homes. When victims of crime are white, they “disproportionately perceive their offenders to be youth of color.”


There are many ways to improve the youth justice system, like changing school policies, health care and data collection, Nelson said, but many fall “within the realm of policymakers.”

To that end, a separate Kids Forward Initiative, “Race to the Polls,” launched this week. The movement asks participants to sign a pledge, dedicating their support to voting in the midterm elections for “candidates who will prioritize racial justice.”

“Race matters in how we’re thinking about who we’re voting for,” Nelson said. “I think we should be asking our politicians, ‘Are you putting a racial equity lens on the policies you are promoting?’”


The movement wants voters to think and talk about race as they go to the polls. It will create questions for voters to ask their candidates, provide research and host online space for conversations.

“Often candidates kind of shy away from speaking directly to or about communities of color,” said Wenona Wolf, communication and development manager at Kids Forward, and both parties could be doing a better job.

The movement doesn’t end with the election cycle, Wolf said; after that, it’s about holding politicians accountable to what they’ve promised.