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Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America Hardcover – April 18, 2017
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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
"Best book I've read this year." ―Jennifer Senior of The New York Times on Twitter
"Superb and shattering . . . 'How did a majority black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?' This is the exceptionally delicate question that [Forman] tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate . . . The effect, for the reader, is devastating. It is also politically consequential . . . Locking Up Our Own is also very poignantly a book of the Obama era, when black authors like [Michelle] Alexander and Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates initiated difficult conversations about racial justice and inequality." ―Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
"Timely . . . A masterly account of how a generation of black elected officials wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation's capital . . . A big deal and a major breakthrough . . . Forman's novel claim is this: What most explains the punitive turn in black America is not a repudiation of civil rights activism, as some have argued, but an embrace of it . . . Locking Up Our Own compel[s] readers to wrestle with some very tough questions about the nature of American democracy and its deep roots in racism, inequality and punishment . . . [Forman shows] that the solution will lie not only with policy changes but with individual changes of heart, too." ―Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The New York Times Book Review
"Remarkable . . . Forman's beautifully written narrative, enriched by firsthand knowledge of the cops and courts, neither condemns black leaders in hindsight nor exonerates the white-dominated institutions . . . He adds historical nuance to the story of 'mass incarceration' told in . . . The New Jim Crow." ―Charles Lane, The Washington Post
"Surprising . . . [Forman's] moving, nuanced, and candid account challenges another aspect of the 'New Jim Crow' thesis. He shows that some of the most ardent proponents of tough·on-crime policies in the era that brought us mass incarceration were black politicians and community leaders―many of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement . . . The correctives offered by Forman . . . have consequences not only for how we understand mass incarceration, but for how we go about fixing it." ―David Cole, The New York Review of Books
"An honest and balanced book . . . Locking Up Our Own doesn't play down the history of racism in our criminal-justice system, but it does explain why racial bias doesn't tell the whole story . . . If we are going to have national 'conversations' about race in the U.S., a book like Locking Up Our Own ought to set the tone. If it did, these debates would be not only more honest but also more civil." ―Jason L. Riley, The Wall Street Journal
"Revelatory . . . As Forman reminds his readers, black people have long been vigilant, often to no avail, about two kinds of equality enshrined in our nation's ideals: equal protection of the law, and equal justice under the law . . . Locking Up Our Own is a well-timed, nuanced examination of the past . . . [and] makes a powerful case that the African American community was instrumental in creating a monster. We should be grateful that the same community . . . is leading the fight to take the monster down." ―Paul Butler, The Atlantic
"Poignant and insightful . . . Forman deftly moves between . . . examples of black community support for a law-and-order crackdown and the dire present-day consequences of our increasingly punitive and aggressive war on crime . . . Timely and important." ―Richard Thompson Ford, San Francisco Chronicle
"Eloquent . . . A gritty, often revelatory work of local history, interspersed with tales of Forman's experiences as a public defender . . . Locking Up Our Own is a sobering chronicle of how black people, in the hope of saving their communities, contributed to the rise of a system that has undone much of the progress of the civil rights era. But, as Forman knows, they could not have built it by themselves, and they are even less likely to be able to abolish it without influential white allies, and dramatic reforms in the structure of American society." ―Adam Shatz, London Review of Books
"Tightly argued and compellingly readable . . . Forman is ideally suited to tell this tale . . . [and] the story he tells is nuanced . . . Locking Up Our Own is a major contribution to the literature on mass incarceration." ―
Matt Wasserman, The Indypendent
"A breakthrough . . . very engaging and lucidly written." ―Andy Martin, The Independent (London)
"[Forman] offers an insightful history of black American leaders and their struggle to keep their communities safe from police and criminals alike . . . From both these personal experiences and the history that helped shape them, Forman uncovers the black community's role in waging wars on crime and drugs." ―Matt Ford, The Atlantic
"Nuanced and insightful . . . Locking Up Our Own relentlessly explores the startling paradox that punitive measures today considered discriminatory were initially supported in the black community on the grounds of self-protection." ―Owen Hamill, Seattle Book Review
"[Locking Up Our Own] mirrors a Greek tragedy of national proportions in its notes of dramatic irony . . . But there also runs a deeper seam in Forman's examination of crime and race in America, one of great compassion . . . An important book for this era of reanimated black awareness." ―Brandon Tensley, Pacific Standard
"The big spring book to argue about . . . Forman can catalogue more dysfunctional systems at close range than The Wire did." ―Boris Kachka, Vulture
"A sharp analysis . . . Forman shows how our nation has gotten to the point where so many citizens―primarily blacks―are imprisoned . . . Writing with authority and compassion, the author tells many vivid stories of the human toll taken by harsh criminal justice policies. He also asks provocative questions . . . Certain to stir debate, this book offers an important new perspective on the ongoing proliferation of America's 'punishment binge.'" ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Forman's comprehensive research and analysis, as well as his compassion and personal experiences, make Locking Up Our Own a powerfully important and accessible glimpse at the U.S.'s punitive criminal justice system." ―Jen Forbus, Shelf Awareness
"James Forman Jr. masterfully explores why so many African Americans supported tough criminal laws over the past fifty years, and why, more recently, their attitudes began to shift. Combining dramatic stories from his work as a public defender with original historical research, Forman uncovers mass incarceration’s hidden history while documenting its human cost. Beautifully written, powerfully argued, and, most of all, deeply empathetic, Locking Up Our Own should be read by everybody who cares about race and justice in America." ―Van Jones, author of The Green-Collar Economy and Rebuild the Dream
"An absolutely essential read for anyone who wants to understand the politics of crime, race, and incarceration."―Chris Hayes, host of All In with Chris Hayes and author of A Colony in a Nation
"Locking Up Our Own is an engaging, insightful, and provocative reexamination of over-incarceration in the black community. James Forman Jr. carefully exposes the complexities of crime, criminal justice, and race. What he illuminates should not be ignored." ―Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative
"James Forman Jr.’s frank and necessary history rings with the authentic voices of black Americans. By paying close attention to local conditions, he shows how well-meaning reforms snowballed into steadily harsher criminal justice policies in Washington, D.C. This is a very valuable and fascinating book―highly readable, engaging, and resolutely accurate about the urban realities it depicts. I recognized this world." ―Jill Leovy, author of Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
"Forman's compassionate narrative interweaves the complexities of racial and class dynamics, especially in how African-American political officials, police chiefs, judges and prosecutors came to support the punitive policies that now ravage poor communities of color more than anyone else . . . [Locking Up Our Own] should become required reading for students, citizens, activists and policy reformers interested in excavating how our system of hyper-incarceration was constructed incrementally over decades." ―Alex Mikulich, America
"Locking Up Our Own is a pathbreaking examination of the ways that, over the past half century, African American policymakers, social justice activists, jurists, prosecutors, police officials, and ordinary folk have thought about and grappled with the administration of criminal justice. It is vivid, accessible, and full of illuminating insights. It is a brilliant distillation of deep research, disciplined thoughtfulness, and moral passion. In ongoing discussions about crime and justice in America, particularly its racial dimensions, no book will be more essential than Locking Up Our Own.” ―Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and author of For Discrimination and Race, Crime, and the Law
"James Forman Jr. tells the fascinating story of mass incarceration from the ground up. We see the heartbreaking stories of young people whose life prospects are diminished through tough-on-crime policies, the leaders in the black community whose limited choices led to support for harsh punishments, and the ways in which the legacy of racism still frames outcomes in the twenty-first century. Locking Up Our Own helps us to understand how the prison population exploded and what we need to do to create a more compassionate approach to crime and justice." ―Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project and author of Race to Incarcerate
About the Author
James Forman Jr. is a professor of law at Yale Law School. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, numerous law reviews, and other publications. A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, he spent six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., where he cofounded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School.
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There are two of those additional factors that Forman analyzes with unique skill and detail. The first is the get-tough-on-crime stance taken by many black politicians and civic leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, These were times when the crack epidemic wrought particular havoc in the black community in Washington, DC - on which Forman focuses - and which created a demand for get-tough policies by the black middle class that was disproportionately the victim of crack-fueled crime. The second is the trend towards pretextual searches of cars in Washington - Eric Holder's version of Rudy Giuliani's stop-and-frisk - which was designed to reduce gun possession in DC. Those searches were deliberately executed with greater vigor in poor, black neighborhoods, and the result was that many poor blacks were arrested for minor drug offenses when officers found marijuana in their cars while looking for guns. It's a Greek tragedy, and it reminded me favorably of Randy Shilts' brilliant treatment of the AIDS epidemic in And The Band Played On.
Forman's background as a former public defender in DC is a great strength of the book, but it also makes the narrative somewhat DC-centric. Incarceration increased throughout the country - were the political and justice dynamics the same in Mississippi and Ohio, to take two examples, as they were in DC. That remains an open question. The book is frustrating, too, in that Forman offers no easy cure for the problems. More drug treatment programs, more constructive diversion programs for youthful offenders, more nuanced reading of arrest records by current and prospective employers? Those would all be good, to be sure, but I left this book feeling that it would take these things, and at least a handful of similarly benign trends, before we will really get a handle on these problems. But it is to Forman's credit that he offers no silver bullet for the problems. Life is sadly frustrating at times.
I believe it is to a large extent a futile effort to try to devise a cure for our criminal justice system. Like the education system and the health care system, the criminal justice system reflects the society as a whole with its characteristic problems, inequality, injustice, and incoherence. These systems will not be improved until the general society is improved or changed fundamentally. I am not talking about socialist revolution but a fundamental increase in fairness and equal opportunity and decrease in discrimination and all of the barriers to fairness and equal opportunity. We won't have any real progress in any sphere until we can eliminate the essential corruption at the heart of our society and economy. There are many good people working in the field and good work being done and this should be continued simultaneous to general efforts to improve our society. We may have to wait 4 years to start on all of that.
Midwest Independent Research, educational websites. Law, mwir-law.blogspot. There are book lists.
It goes deeper than that, though, and argued, that today's mass incarceration came about by a series of well intentioned laws and policies to combat drug and gun violence in America's urban area said. Harsh laws we're not backed up by promises to examine and fix root causes, for example.
One of many good reads to better understand the current state of our criminal justice system and the rod that led us here.