America’s Incarceration Crisis: Are We ‘Doomed To Repeat The Same Failed Policies’?

In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence” for KCRW, Robert Scheer speaks with James Forman Jr. The Yale Law School professor once clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and is a former public defender. His new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” delves into the issue of systemic incarceration of black men in the United States.

“We rarely have good alternatives to offer to prison—that’s our default,” Forman says. “And until we fix that, until we move from a mindset that says, ‘People addicted on the street are a criminal justice problem,’ and move to thinking of them as a public health problem, until we make that transition as a society, we’re doomed to repeat the same failed policies generation after generation.”

Forman begins the conversation by sharing an anecdote from his time as a public defender when he was representing a 15-year-old black male in front of a black judge in Washington, D.C. He goes on to explain how this case represented the nationwide attitude toward race and incarceration in the 1990s.

He and Scheer then discuss another of Forman’s cases, in which a prosecutor wouldn’t offer drug rehabilitation to a heroin addict with two previous convictions.

“How come we never use prison, the failure of prison, as a reason not to give more prison? There’s never a moment where we say, ‘OK, well, prison hasn’t worked, so we’re not going to try that again,’ ” Forman says. “But we do that with drug programs all the time.”

The two also discuss the war on drugs and the issue of decriminalization, specifically decriminalization of marijuana and the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests. The conversation concludes with a broader look at the historical trauma of slavery and why an open, in-depth discussion of slavery is a crucial step in fixing America’s incarceration crisis.

Listen to the full conversation and to past editions of “Scheer Intelligence”at