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The Black Woman Reforming Criminal Justice in Wisconsin

State Senator, Wis.

1811_Lena Taylor 10a
Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for African-American men in the entire country. Milwaukee is the nation’s most segregated city, according to the Brookings Institution. State Sen. Lena Taylor calls these racial disparities the “worst in our history,” and they’re motivating her to keep pushing for reform of the state’s criminal justice system.

As only the second African-American woman to serve in the state Senate -- and the first to chair its Judiciary Committee -- Taylor launched a “State of Justice” tour, in which she held committee meetings on the subject across the state. Lately she’s been pushing for a new emphasis on “restorative justice,” in which criminals have to grapple with the effects of their actions and attempt to make amends for them. This might mean talking with the victims of their crimes or with other community members.

A lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Taylor initially worked as a public defender representing clients who couldn’t afford an attorney. In 2003, she won a special election to the state Assembly; she was elected to the Senate a year later.

She says she believes her state may be newly open to rethinking its approach to criminal justice, in part because of how costly the current incarceration approach has become. “Now,” she says, “people are ready to listen.”

Read about the Women in Government program and the rest of the honorees.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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