The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America

The First Civil RightAuthor: Naomi Murakawa
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2014

The explosive rise in the U.S. incarceration rate in the second half of the 20th century, and the racial transformation of the prison population from mostly white at mid-century to 65 percent black and Latino in the present day, is a trend that cannot easily be ignored. Many believe that this shift began with the “tough on crime” policies advocated by Republicans and southern Democrats beginning in the late 1960s.

Naomi Murakawa, associate professor in the Center for African American Studies, inverts the conventional wisdom by arguing that the expansion of the federal carceral state was, in fact, rooted in the civil-rights liberalism of the 1940s and early 1960s. Responding to calls to end the lawlessness and violence against blacks at the state and local levels, the Truman administration expanded the scope of what was previously a weak federal system. Later administrations from Johnson to Clinton expanded the federal presence even more. Ironically, these steps laid the groundwork for the creation of the vast penal archipelago that now exists in the United States. What began as a liberal initiative to curb the mob violence and police brutality that had deprived racial minorities of their “first civil right” — physical safety — eventually evolved into the federal correctional system that now deprives them, in unjustly large numbers, of another important right: freedom.

Race and incarceration rates: Student researcher explores solutions

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Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013, focused her research on the ways in which nonprofits are contributing to policy reform in the criminal justice system.

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.

Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013 (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013 (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

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