Author sees growing resistance to our lock-‘em-up mentality
The issue of U.S. mass incarceration is “the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Yale Law Professor James Forman, Jr., the son of the late Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Black Panther Party leader James Forman. He is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (2017).
A former Washington, D.C. public defender, Forman used his courtroom experiences as a backdrop to look at mass incarceration from a historical perspective as well as offering suggestions for change. He discussed the book and took audience questions during his scheduled in downtown Minneapolis.
“We’ve seen progress in the last couple of years” in focusing on mass incarceration issues, Forman told the MSR before a book signing session at Westminster. “Churches and politicians are starting to question why we are locking up so many people.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Minnesota is 49th among U.S. states in imprisonment rates — 146 per 100,000 persons — but fourth in the country in highest Black-White disparity with 11 Blacks per 100,000 behind bars. The U.S. average is 5.1 per 100,000.
“The term ‘mass incarceration’ was created in 2000,” Forman told the audience. “We already knew that one of every three Blacks is under criminal justice supervision…[and] that Black women is the single largest [population] of our prison system. The United States passed Russia in the 1980s and earned the dishonor of being the world’s largest incarcerator.”
Forman pointed to the “first generation of Black elected officials” of the 1970s and 1980s and several “constraints” they seemingly had to deal with as they tried to solve the growing mass incarceration problem in response to citizens wanting a solution to the growing crime problem in their neighborhoods.
“Black people were elected to represent communities that have been deprived of resources to protect themselves,” he stated. “In the last 50 years, a generation of Black elected officials” regularly solicited Washington for federal funds to deal with crime, housing and other pressing community needs as well as “a Marshall Plan for Black America — the U.S. government to invest in Black communities as they did in Europe after World War II. They came back usually with money for one of the above — law enforcement, police, prisons.”
The law professor-author also cited a lack of imagination in addressing mass incarceration. “In this country we’ve come to see [law enforcement] as someone showing up carrying a gun and handcuffs,” Forman said. Asked about community policing, he replied, “We have to figure out what we mean by community policing. It has a lot of potential, but unfortunately that potential is often underutilized.”
He also advised the audience to pay more attention to local prosecutors, who are elected officials. “Just don’t accept their statements about aggressive prosecuting. Find out what their positions are. Ask them about racial profiling, prosecuting low-level drug offenders, their support on restorative justice, and then hold them accountable,” states Forman.
Public defender offices “are underfunded and under-resourced,” he added.
Mass incarceration reform must also include restoring full citizenship to ex-offenders once they complete their sentences, Forman said. “We built up a system where people who are incarcerated are so far removed” from their communities, then oftentimes experience reentry issues after their release.
Asked about some criticism that his book is a rebuttal of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Forman responded, “I don’t view my book as any way challenging the core features of her book. I think her work is fabulous, important and groundbreaking. It has been so widely read in high school, college, in [church] congregations and among politicians.”
Rather, he sees Locking Up Our Own as a complement to Alexander’s best seller and hopes it will further the mass incarceration discussion.
America must “develop a criminal justice system that’s actually worthy of this nation,” said Forman. “I don’t know if we have a choice, but we must be hopeful,” Forman later told the MSR. “Am I hopeful? My answer is yes.
“I think the African American community here [in the Twin Cities] has been politically engaged, and that needs to continue. I think my book is on how pressure from ordinary citizens does make a difference. It does influence government.
“I would encourage people to continue that process,” he concluded.
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