Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

by James Forman Jr.


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An original and consequential argument about race, crime, and the law

Today, Americans are debating our criminal justice system with new urgency. Mass incarceration and aggressive police tactics—and their impact on people of color—are feeding outrage and a consensus that something must be done.

But what if we only know half the story? In Locking Up Our Own, the Yale legal scholar and former public defender James Forman Jr. weighs the tragic role that some African Americans themselves played in escalating the war on crime. As Forman shows, the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office around the country amid a surge in crime. Many came to believe that tough measures—such as stringent drug and gun laws and “pretext traffic stops” in poor African American neighborhoods—were needed to secure a stable future for black communities. Some politicians and activists saw criminals as a “cancer” that had to be cut away from the rest of black America. Others supported harsh measures more reluctantly, believing they had no other choice in the face of a public safety emergency.

Drawing on his experience as a public defender and focusing on Washington, D.C., Forman writes with compassion for individuals trapped in terrible dilemmas—from the young men and women he defended to officials struggling to cope with an impossible situation. The result is an original view of our justice system as well as a moving portrait of the human beings caught in its coils.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374189976
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/18/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 229,169
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

James Forman Jr. is a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School. He has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, numerous law reviews, and other publications. A former clerk for Judge William Norris of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the United States Supreme Court, he spent six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C. He is the cofounder of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington.

Table of Contents

Introduction 3

Part I Origins

1 Gateway to the War on Drugs: Marijuana, 1975 17

2 Black Lives Matter: Gun Control, 1975 47

3 Representatives of Their Race: The Rise of African American Police, 1948-78 78

Part II Consequences

4 "Locking Up Thugs Is Not Vindictive": Sentencing, 1983-82 119

5 "The Worst Thing to Hit Us Since Slavery': Crack and the Advent of Warrior Policing, 1988-92 151

6 What Would Martin Luther King, Jr., Say?: Stop and Search, 1995 185

Epilogue: The Reach of Our Mercy, 2014-16 217

Notes 241

Acknowledgments 287

Index 291

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Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Adofo Minka More than 1 year ago
As a public defender working in the criminal punishment system in Hinds County, Mississippi, a county that is well over 70% black,, I found Professor Foreman's book to be long overdue, yet timely. Where many authors look at the current state of our criminal punishment system in the larger context of systematic racism, Foreman's work digs deeper and gives readers an up close look at class dynamics and how they have played out in cities where black elected and appointed officials were tasked with controlling the local criminal punishment apparatus and legislative processes. The history that Foreman uncovers shows that black elected and appointed officials who made political, economic and social gains from the advancements of the civil rights movements, many times adopted the status quo solutions to of remedying crime through punishments in many instances even when they knew that the true root causes of criminality were addiction, economic inequity and racism. However, instead of taking the time, energy and brain power necessary to come up with root cause solutions to crime such providing mental health services, drug rehabilitation, leveling the economic playing field and ultimately, taking the political positions that they had acquired in government and attempt to dismantle the status quo that kept so many poor black people locked inside of a vicious cycle that was marred by poverty, crime and hopelessness, these individual took their new found class status, pushed the dominant narrative and passed harsher and more punitive laws that played into the politics of fear and punishment. To be fair to these politicians who added fuel and legitimacy to the call for longer and harsher punishment, Foreman also points out that the community bewildered by crime, drugs and violence also were calling for these elected leaders to do something about the devastation the crime, drugs and violence were wreaking on their communities. Looking back, we can clearly see that these politicians took the road of least resistance and that was throwing poor black people away into prisons and jails who were ultimately victims of a political, social and economic context that they did not create. If Foreman's work does not demonstrate anything else, it demonstrates that leadership must employ creativity, empathy, compassion and ingenuity to solve the problems of crime and violence. There are no short cut solutions. The history shows that the individuals in political authority who had control of the criminal punishment apparatus after being victimized by it for so long, failed when they had their shot at the helm. Many black politicians continue to fail the masses of poor black people in this way. Even In the Age of Trumps America, there are still localities throughout the United States who claim to be electing black progressive and even "radical" political leadership. Locking Up Our Own serves as a cautionary tale to what not to do in the realm of criminal justice if we are to have any real justice on the local and state levels particularly. It also shows what happens when oppressed group take control of the political apparatus without purging themselves of the social values of our oppressors. Without such a purging, the formerly oppressed class will be just as punitive and unforgiving as those who held control previously. However, instead of being on the basis of race, such punishment and long term harm will be carried out on the basis of class.