By Marlysa D. Gamblin
Black August originated and has been observed since the 1970s with a decision by African-American prisoners to protest unjust incarceration and police killings of black people.
In papers such as Mass Incarceration: A Major Cause of Hunger, Bread for the World Institute has explored the connection between the unjust over-incarceration of black bodies and the disproportionately higher rates of hunger and poverty in the black community to which this inequity contributes.
In last year’s blog, I wrote about some good first steps in addressing mass incarceration, specifically to reduce the over-incarceration and unjust treatment of African Americans in our criminal justice system. These steps included eliminating racial inequality and bias, prioritizing investments to support communities most affected by hunger and mass incarceration, and implementing plans to release individuals currently incarcerated (particularly those who have been over-policed, over-sentenced, and/or given an unjust mandatory minimum sentence).
Over-policing and unjust sentencing must be addressed to end mass incarceration and ensure comprehensive prison reform. Congress and several state legislatures have demonstrated bipartisan agreement on sentencing and prison reform, so enacting applicable policy provisions would be a good first step.
Since both long prison sentences and a lack of rehabilitative programs for incarcerated people impact individuals’ and families’ ability to put food on the table, we believe that a combination of sentencing and prison reform is critical to achieving real change in the criminal justice system. This change, which Black August participants demanded through protests, would not only yield more racially equitable results, but also dramatically reduce hunger in the United States.
The evidence shows that African Americans are sentenced at higher rates than whites. For example, African-American defendants are disproportionately convicted of offenses that carry a federal mandatory minimum penalty (31.5 percent for African Americans compared to 27.4 percent for the general population). In addition, according to the Sentencing Project, African Americans are incarcerated at up to 10 times the rate of whites due to over-policing and disproportionate convictions.
African Americans are also given longer sentences than whites for the same crime. In 2000, Professor Cassia Spohn released a comprehensive survey of 40 studies of sentencing outcomes over the course of 30 years. The survey concluded that black offenders were both more likely to be convicted and more likely to receive harsh sentences than white offenders.
These are a few examples of the conditions that black prisoners originally protested when they originated Black August. Harsher, longer sentences not only are unfair, but also disproportionately hurt black children and families. We know from research that being incarcerated results in less income and wealth post-incarceration, leaving families with few resources to fight hunger. And since African Americans are racially profiled, policed, arrested, and convicted at higher rates than their white counterparts, mass incarceration means that African-American households are more likely to earn lower incomes. This explains, in part, why African-American households with children experience hunger at twice the rate of white households with children (26.0 percent v. 12.7 percent).
As August approaches, we should be bold as a country; bold in our research and analysis; bold in our advocacy; and bold in our expectations from our policymakers. Part of honoring Black August is being truthful about the real reforms we need to see in our criminal justice system, which should include both sentencing and prison reform as a first step. We must also fully acknowledge and address the system’s racial inequities in order to complete the needed reforms.
Marlysa D. Gamblin is a domestic advisor for policy and programs, specific populations, with Bread for the World Institute.