Lack of imagination has contributed to mass incarceration, says MLaw MLK Day speaker

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Photo courtesy of U-M Law

By Jason Searle
U-M?Law

Today, one in three black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. During Michigan Law’s 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture, author and Yale Law Professor James Forman Jr. shared some thoughts on why.
Forman, whose teaching load at Yale includes a class called Race, Class, and Punishment, discussed the findings of his new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” The book exposes the human and civil rights violations attending mass incarceration, particularly of black Americans, and explains how even just following the civil rights movement and with the first generation of black leaders, more and more black Americans came into contact with the criminal justice system—especially young black men.

In addition to the usual suspects of Jim Crow, red-lining, and the attending historical trauma, Forman discovered a critical additional piece that he explored in “Locking Up Our Own.” Starting just before the civil rights era, crime and drug abuse (particularly heroin) skyrocketed in black communities. Concerned citizens wrote to their representatives, imploring them to take action. The new generation of black leaders was eager to respond.

“So why were police, prisons, and prosecutors the response?” Forman asked. Though the new leaders would have preferred a comprehensive strategy, Forman told the audience that law enforcement was the only avenue for which the federal and state governments would offer resources.

“We see in history a lot of political leadership that lacked imagination,” Forman told the crowd. Even black leaders fell prey to thinking too narrowly. Forman recalled one city council member who would send citizen complaint letters on to the police chief. “He could not think of an addict in a public space as anything other than a law enforcement problem. But could it be a public health, or a civil rights problem?”

Forman’s interest in social justice began long before he began research for the book. He grew up in Atlanta, the son of an interracial couple at a time when interracial couples were de facto taboo, and when interracial marriage was de jure prohibited. Two blocks down the road from where he grew up, Forman told the audience, “there were two big buildings—the federal penitentiary and the GM plant. Since then, one has shut down and the other has built a new addition.” He paused before continuing, “I don’t think I need to tell you which is which.”

Following graduation, Forman became a public defender in Washington, D.C. But he soon realized that the work presented limited potential for making the change he was determined to see through.

A huge turning point came while he was representing a young black man, Brandon, facing serious criminal charges. “Mr. Forman tells me you’ve had a tough life,” Forman recalled the judge saying. “Well, let me tell you about ‘tough.’” The judge had no sympathy for Brandon and regarded him as disgraceful to his forbears who fought so hard for equality. The judge sentenced Brandon to D.C.’s juvenile prison, which Forman described as “a dungeon where you always left worse than when you came in.”

What stood out to Forman was that the judge also was black, and was highly aware of the history of oppression of Black Americans. Forman soon realized the judge was not alone in exhibiting historical awareness alongside a seemingly contradictory harsh treatment of his own people. That incident and other similar treatment of black defendants by black officials stuck with Forman and became the basis for “Locking Up Our Own.”

Forman left his public defender position to tackle the issues more directly and proactively, including co-founding the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in D.C. to help provide education and job training opportunities for previously arrested dropouts and youth. Opened in 1997, the school has continued to serve hundreds of youths, helping them graduate, find work, and go to college.

Thinking about problems in a concrete but creative way—like curbing the school-to-prison pipeline by opening a charter school—was just one of the lessons Forman came away with in researching and writing his book. During his talk, he encouraged law students to not let law school stamp out such creativity. Additionally, Forman extolled the audience to pay closer attention to local politics, a level of government often overlooked but crucial to fixing the mass incarceration problem. “Find out who the local prosecutor is, and what their policy is on various issues. And think about running for local office yourself.”

Forman believes progress has begun in important ways, such as the increase in the election of prosecutors who run on progressive platforms antithetical to the traditional “tough on crime” stance. He also raised the importance of showing awareness for the problems of mass incarceration and human rights abuses in prisons. “We hide our prisons and make communication almost impossible. This is supposed to make us forget those people and keep us ignorant to the inhumanity and brutality. We need to combat that.” Forman himself has started to combat the issue by moving one of his classes to a Connecticut prison near Yale’s New Haven campus.
Each semester, the class includes 10 students and 10 prison inmates who talk about punishment and victimization in the criminal justice system. The class has received extremely positive feedback from students and inmates alike.

Forman encouraged the standing-room-only crowd to continue the work of Dr. King and the civil rights protesters. “People will tell you change is impossible. And then some of you will make the change they said was impossible. You will come up with the thing that challenges our imagination about mass incarceration.”

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