African Americans made up 40 percent of incarcerated individuals in the United States in 2012, despite being only 13 percent of the American population, according to the United States Census Bureau. Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013, wanted to know what could be done to change that statistic.
For her senior thesis project, Pingue analyzed three nonprofit organizations engaged in incarceration reform. She found that, while these programs were promising, additional policy changes and judicial reforms are needed to shrink the racial disparity in incarceration rates.
“One thing scholars agree on is that mass imprisonment has produced a host of undesirable consequences, particularly for African Americans,” Pingue said, “including the loss of the right to vote and barriers to employment, purchasing a car, and access to quality health care. These disadvantages can affect entire African American communities, including non-offenders.” To find out what nonprofits are doing to address the issue, Pingue conducted in-depth interviews and reviewed policy briefs and other documents. Pingue focused on three organizations — the Sentencing Project, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project.
These groups advocate for reforms such as reduced drug-related sentences, rehabilitation rather than prison for nonviolent offenders, placement services for ex-felons re-entering society, and job training for economically disadvantaged youth. Additional reforms include ending biased police practices such as racial profiling.
Pingue found that nonprofits have had a positive effect on government incarceration policies. For example, lobbying by the Sentencing Project and the NAACP LDF contributed to a reduction in federal drug-related sentences through the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
She found room for improvement, however. “One of the more surprising findings of my research was that the reform that nonprofits are pursuing — mostly litigation or lobbying — may not represent what a large bulk of the affected population feels needs to be done,” Pingue said. She concluded that nonprofits need to do more to connect with affected communities.
Imani Perry, professor of African American studies, advised Pingue on the project. “The problem of racialized mass incarceration devastates communities, families and individual lives,” Perry said. “I’m very impressed by Danielle’s research into the range of policy recommendations and lobbying efforts of nonprofit organizations working on how to address this problem.”
During her undergraduate education, Pingue interned at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies and concentrated her studies in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with a certificate in African American studies.
Pingue, who was born in Jamaica and moved with her parents to Worcester, Mass., when she was 10, will enter Harvard Law School in the fall. After law school she hopes to enter politics, perhaps as a representative working with disadvantaged communities. “My long-term goal is to go back to Jamaica and work on social policy and developmental issues, bringing the work that I’ve learned in the United States back to my birthplace,” she said.
–By Catherine Zandonella