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Locking Up Our Own
Cover of Locking Up Our Own
Locking Up Our Own
Crime and Punishment in Black America
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In recent years, America's criminal justice system has become the subject of an increasingly urgent debate. Critics have assailed the rise of mass incarceration, emphasizing its disproportionate impact on people of color. As James Forman, Jr., points out, however, the war on crime that began in the 1970s was supported by many African American leaders in the nation's urban centers. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand why.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness—and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.

A former D.C. public defender, Forman tells riveting stories of politicians, community activists, police officers, defendants, and crime victims. He writes with compassion about individuals trapped in terrible dilemmas—from the men and women he represented in court to officials struggling to respond to a public safety emergency. Locking Up Our Own enriches our understanding of why our society became so punitive and offers important lessons to anyone concerned about the future of race and the criminal justice system in this country.

In recent years, America's criminal justice system has become the subject of an increasingly urgent debate. Critics have assailed the rise of mass incarceration, emphasizing its disproportionate impact on people of color. As James Forman, Jr., points out, however, the war on crime that began in the 1970s was supported by many African American leaders in the nation's urban centers. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand why.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness—and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.

A former D.C. public defender, Forman tells riveting stories of politicians, community activists, police officers, defendants, and crime victims. He writes with compassion about individuals trapped in terrible dilemmas—from the men and women he represented in court to officials struggling to respond to a public safety emergency. Locking Up Our Own enriches our understanding of why our society became so punitive and offers important lessons to anyone concerned about the future of race and the criminal justice system in this country.

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About the Author-
  • James Forman, Jr. is a professor of law at Yale Law School. He has written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, numerous law reviews, and other publications. A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, he spent six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., where he cofounded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School. He is the author of Locking Up Our Own.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from January 9, 2017
    Drawing on a varied CV (public defender, Supreme Court clerk, charter school cofounder, Yale law professor), Forman addresses a tangled and thorny issue—the part played by African-Americans in shaping criminal justice policy. A complex picture emerges, focused on Washington, D.C., as black inner-city residents are hurt both by “over- and under-policing” and as effective enforcement and fairer treatment of minorities come to seem incompatible to policymakers. Forman delineates the ravaging effects of cures with boomerang consequences—from vigorous prosecutions of relatively minor offenses that cut offenders off from public benefits, to black anti-drug activism that enables more punitive policing, to mandatory sentencing policies that prove unequally implemented. With regard to public policy, Forman’s attentiveness to class divisions in the black community (for example, the middle-class desire for increased numbers of black policemen, as opposed to the working-class goal of simply accessing new avenues of employment) offers an exemplary perspective. The book achieves genuine immediacy, due not only to the topical subject, but also to Forman’s personal experiences within the legal system. Possibly controversial, undoubtedly argumentative, Forman’s survey offers a refreshing breath of fresh air on the crisis in American policing. Agent: David McCormick, McCormick Literary.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from March 1, 2017
    A sharp analysis of how African-Americans, due to "profound levels of pain, fear, and anger" over crime and violence in their neighborhoods, have helped shape U.S. policies leading to mass incarceration.In this candid, readable account, Forman, a former Washington, D.C., public defender and current professor at Yale Law School, shows how our nation has gotten to the point where so many citizens--primarily blacks--are imprisoned. Surveying the recent history of race, crime, and punishment, the author, son of civil rights pioneer James Forman, argues that mass incarceration has developed incrementally as a result of national campaigns and federal actions as well as of "mundane" local decisions made around the nation. With a focus on majority-black D.C., where he represented criminal defendants and co-founded a charter school for school dropouts, Forman traces the rise of drug addiction and criminality, the resulting widespread fear in black neighborhoods, and the demands in the 1980s for "tougher criminal penalties" that set "a national precedent for punitive sentencing." Most people punished under policies to combat drugs and guns, he writes, have been "low-income, poorly educated black men." Especially insightful are Forman's discussions of the rise of black policing in the 1960s ("a surprising number of black officers simply didn't like other black people--at least not the poor blacks they tended to police"), the "hostile, unforgiving mindset" that prompted "warrior policing" during the 1980s crack epidemic, and the practice of "pretext policing," in which routine traffic stops are used to seek evidence of criminal activity, especially in ghetto areas. Writing with authority and compassion, the author tells many vivid stories of the human toll taken by harsh criminal justice policies. He also asks provocative questions--e.g., what if the D.C. drug epidemic had been treated as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem? Certain to stir debate, this book offers an important new perspective on the ongoing proliferation of America's "punishment binge."

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    November 1, 2016

    Yale Law School professor Forman argues that black America suffers from aggressive police tactics and disproportionately high rates of incarceration because the crime rate was high when African Americans first started taking office as mayors, judges, and police chiefs. Thus, they felt compelled to institute tough measures to help create stable black communities.

    Copyright 2016 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    February 15, 2017

    Washington, DC, public defender-turned- Yale University clinical law professor Forman traces the growth of the carceral state that now holds behind bars about one in every four adult black males. Taking a different turn from much of the literature on the topic, the author focuses on black-on-black attitudes and actions as he recollects his Washington experience. He argues that beginning in the 1970s, with a rising generation of unprecedented black political power, elected black leaders and their constituents significantly shaped U.S. criminal justice policy, invariably supporting tough on crime measures as fearful black communities sought self-protection. The result in Washington was that a majority black jurisdiction ended up incarcerating many of its own, Forman concludes. VERDICT Forman's series of brief essays deserve reading by policy-makers and practitioners in the criminal justice system, as well as by general readers. His attention to the range of black responses to crime and punishment adds to our understanding of the prison system, while not discounting the enduring role of discrimination. [See Prepub Alert, 10/10/16.]--Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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Locking Up Our Own
Crime and Punishment in Black America
James Forman, Jr.
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