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Former public defender explains why we need to go further on fighting mass incarceration

April 20, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Based in part on the author's experience as a public defender in Washington, D.C., a new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” looks at what led to the crisis of mass incarceration in the black community. James Forman Jr. joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss what he witnessed and why he sees mass incarceration as the top civil rights issue of his generation.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: race, crime and imprisonment. That’s the focus of the newest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mass incarceration and its devastating effect on black Americans and neighborhoods, it’s a subject that’s attracted much attention in books and policy circles in the last decade.

A new take on the issue comes in the book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” based in part on the experience of author James Forman Jr. as a public defender in Washington, D.C. Forman is now a professor at Yale Law School and joins me now

Welcome to you.

JAMES FORMAN JR., Author, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me pick up on that experience of being a public defender.

What did you see there that made you rethink the story of mass incarceration?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, I went into the job because I viewed this as the civil rights issue of my generation, one in three black men under criminal justice supervision.

And when I got to local courts of Washington, D.C., what I saw was case after case with African-American judges, prosecutors, bailiffs. D.C. has a significant African-American representation in operation of this criminal justice system. And that system was very harsh.

I had one case where a judge before locking up my client lectured him on Martin Luther King. He said, Martin Luther King fought and died for your generation to be free, and you’re out here messing it up, carrying a gun, getting high, disrespecting your family and the neighborhood.

So, that’s the thing that really told me there was a story here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, a number of books and thinkers have looked as this over the last number of years, mass incarceration through the lens on institutional racism, right, even a continuation of the history of slavery in this country.

Are you challenging the story, filling it in? What do you see yourself doing here?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: No, I think that story is correct and powerful and urgent.

So, what I see what I’m doing is adding to it, because there’s a part of the story that we haven’t focused on yet. And it’s the part of the story of this generation of African-American decision-makers that came in at the end of the civil rights movement and took office, became police chiefs, became prosecutors, became judges. What were they doing during the…

JEFFREY BROWN: Became the attorney general. You talk about Eric Holder.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Absolutely, who …

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us an example, though, I mean, of what — a specific example, like Holder?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, OK, so somebody like Eric Holder comes in as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in the early 1990s, and he gives a big speech where he says, crime and violence are destroying our communities. He says, the black people of D.C. are no more free than the black people of Selma, Alabama, were in 1955. But what’s keeping us down, what’s keeping us locked inside is crime and violence and criminal gangs.

So, in response to that, he promoted a program called Operation Cease-Fire, where police would stop cars on any pretext, of a minor traffic violation, speeding, tinted windows, you name it, because they wanted to search those cars for guns.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, with good intention, the best intentions, of protecting the black community, but you’re suggesting all of that helped foment what’s come in the mass incarceration.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Exactly.

I mean, the story — my story is a tragedy, right, because it is a story of best intentions in many cases. You have people, often, they don’t — part of the story is that people didn’t know what was going to happen next.

So, in the 1970s, they chose not to decriminalize marijuana. That was a big debate in D.C. at the time. And when — they didn’t do it. And they said, well, it’s not that big of a deal if we don’t decriminalize marijuana, because nobody’s really going to prison, no one’s losing their job for a marijuana conviction.

But then, later in the ’80s and in the ’90s, we passed laws that said you can’t get a student loan, you can’t get public housing, you can’t get a job if you have a marijuana conviction. So, a decision they made at time A later turns out to have these devastating effects.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when and why did these attitudes change? Or have they shifted sufficiently?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, they have shifted in part.

So, I think the big thing that’s happened in the last few years — and the Black Lives Matter movement is a part of this, important writers like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates have really promoted this issue.

And attitudes in the black community have started to change, as people more and more see mass incarceration as a racial justice issue. But one thing that hasn’t changed is, we still don’t really talk about people who have committed violent crimes. When we say we’re going to try to reduce mass incarceration, our whole focus so far has been on nonviolent drug offenders.

And I argue in the book, that’s not going far enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is it important to recognize the role of African-Americans in bringing about mass incarceration?

You know, why is it important to fill in or tell the story, take the story further the way you have?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, part of it, honestly, is, you know, I’m just that kind of person who, if I go to a movie, and there’s no black characters, somebody asks me at the end of the movie, what did you think about it, I say, well, it was OK, but there were — there were no — where were the black characters?

I mean, I think that black people have been central to every part of American history. And so I don’t want to watch a movie, I don’t want to read a book, I don’t want to study history that doesn’t show the role that African-Americans were playing.

So, that, to me, is really, at a basic level, the number one reason. But it’s also because, factually, we were there, right, in D.C., in Atlanta, in Memphis, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in New York. You have substantial African-American representation. And I just don’t think we can write us out of the picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, I mean, we started with a personal story, you as a public defender, talking about the unfinished work of the civil rights movement.

You’re also the son of a very prominent civil rights leader, James Forman. Connect the dots for me, the kind of work as a public defender, but, more importantly, the mass incarceration problem now to the civil rights movement. How do you see it?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, they have this similarity.

Both of them have — that is to say, Jim Crow and mass incarceration both have led to a whole part of the population being locked out of opportunity by being defined by a certain status, either your race or the fact that you have a criminal conviction.

And that means you can’t get a job, you can’t get public housing, you can’t get student loans, you can’t live freely as an American citizen. And so I think, really, what the civil rights movement was about was finding the most acute thing that was harming black people, which at the time was Jim Crow, and responding.

And I see the movement to fight mass incarceration in much the same way today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new book is “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,”

James Forman Jr., thank you very much.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Thank you.

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