Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America
by James Forman, Jr.
“All of us in the public defender’s office fear the Martin Luther King speech.” Forman’s first line in this winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction begins our challenging read. His last challenge is this: “Mass incarceration, as we have seen, was constructed incrementally, and it may have to be dismantled the same way.”
In 1995, “one in three young black men were under criminal supervision.” This resulted from the tough 1970 approaches to crimes. Our nation with “5 percent of the world’s population held 25 percent of its prisoners.” And invoking “Dr. King while locking up another young black man was perverse.” This occurred even in an all-black court in Washington, D.C., from judge, prosecutor, and court reporter.
“How did a majority in a black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?” Foreman, current Yale law professor, focused on finding the answers: 1) Devastation of black communities from crime violence, heroin — later crack — and homicides was “the worst thing to hit us since slavery.” 2) The black communities chose to protect their communities. 3) Policies focused on communities’ needs, but “racism shaped the political, economic, and legal context” in which politicians were elected. No communities’ Marshal Plan appeared. 4) Although mass incarceration harmed black America, the major victims came from the “poorest and least educated blacks,” incarcerated for drugs and stigmatized for a lifetime.
Fear of crime crossed racial identities. Nationwide, gun laws were touted. And as Atlanta’s Mayor Maynard Jackson said, “‘We are living in an armed camp — an illegally armed camp.’” Getting rid of guns, however, faced barriers including the tradition to bear arms: both a tool for black “self-defenses and a symbol of black determination,” wrote Forman and referencing Nicholas Johnson’s “Black Tradition of Arms.” “‘I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again,’” asserted one SNCC 1960s member.
Would more black officers help? But black officers remained unequal. Miami, for example, until 1962, had two criminal justice systems: “one for whites and one for blacks.” Separate arrangements for black officers, police station, black judge, and bailiff were never equal from social to economic. Black officers clarified their interests: “Police work was a good job — stable, secure, with good benefits, representing “a step up from their parents’ achievements.” The black officer changed few police policies. Nationwide, even the well-intended policies often led to worst of all possible worlds
Forman recommends two major sources for achieving change: 1) the public by focusing on treatment rather than prisons, “funding public defenders adequately,” “restoring voting rights to those who have served their sentences, building prison’s public schools, “welcoming — not shunning and shaming” — those released from prisons, and redoubling efforts at both state and local levels. 2) “Personal challenges matter too.” We each have power “to push back against the harshness of mass incarceration.”
C. D. Rogers is a member of The Florida Bar.