How This Yale Professor Thinks Black Figures In The Justice System Can Do Better

In "Locking Up Our Own," James Forman Jr. explains the grave errors of the way black authority figures police the community.
The Yale Law School professor's book <em>Locking Up Our Own</em> was published last month.
The Yale Law School professor's book Locking Up Our Own was published last month.
thawornnurak via Getty Images

In 1975, David Clarke, the head of the Judiciary Committee of the Washington, D.C., City Council, spearheaded a bill to decriminalize marijuana. The vote on such a bill would be a no-brainer for a number of today’s liberal black politicians, but to some members of D.C.’s predominantly black City Council, the proposal sounded dangerous and radical at the time.

According to James Forman Jr., Yale professor and author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, the politicians feared marijuana decriminalization might detract from the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. Not to mention marijuana was still viewed as a gateway drug and the bill came on the heels of a frightening heroin epidemic.

By voting against this bill ― which they did ― the D.C. City Council thought they were doing right by the black community. But given the innumerable black men whose lives have been altered by trivial marijuana offenses, in the long run, the mentality behind this decision was counterproductive at minimum. The ACLU of D.C. reported that between 2001 and 2010, black residents made up 91% of marijuana arrests.

“The [politicians] decided not to [decriminalize] not because they didn’t care about black youth, but they did care about them,” Forman told HuffPost in late April. “Black City Council members said, ‘We can’t have an army to fight the revolution if everyone is on cloud nine.’”

This is the paradox that guides Locking Up Our Own. While Forman is fully cognizant of the ways in which racism has led to mass incarceration, his book explores the role of black politicians and power players in the justice system.

Forman spoke with HuffPost about the grave consequences of their “tough on crime” approach and how they can go about implementing effective reform.

Is your thesis more about black authority figures in the criminal justice system who have a good heart but have this “tough on crime” mentality that ends up being counterproductive?

A lot of people, I think, can fit into that category ... not everybody. One of the ideas we talk about in the book is that the black community is not monolithic ... we have many voices. We’re varied. So, I think you see that referenced in the book as well. Doug Moore was a black nationalist who loved the black community [and] came out of the civil rights movement. He was the furthest thing from an Uncle Tom character, but opposed marijuana decriminalization because he said all black children in racist America need to have their wits about them. [And] we can’t afford to be getting high because America is racist.

[He thought] that if our children fall prey to addiction, we don’t have money for fancy, residential drug treatment programs. His love for the community took him to this position, which I think now in retrospect has been very damaging. That’s one of the people I’m writing about.

What are your thoughts on judges like Darcel Clark and the black guards who didn’t really see the humanity of the late Kalief Browder ― one of their own?

One of the dysfunctions in the criminal system is that a lot of people don’t take responsibility for the role they played. There are a lot of people involved but that’s even sadder because a number of people contributed to the outcomes. Even though they didn’t do this by themselves, they probably had the power to stop it.

The [guards] had the power to not beat [Kalief]. The judge had the power to not put him in jail pre-trial. If the judge had made a different decision, he wouldn’t be put in jail to be beaten.

I find it very frustrating how much passing the buck there is in the criminal justice system when it comes to taking responsibility for outcomes.

What’s your opinion on Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Sheriff David Clarke?

I don’t think I encountered anybody in my research who was as kind of vitriolic and sort of outrageous in their statements as he consistently is. This book is full of African American characters who in some ways kind of contributed to the problem. But he’s not a complicated figure ... he’s almost a caricature. He’s just so extreme.

What do you think of Mike Pence’s use of the Keith Scott killing to justify that racism doesn’t exist in the criminal justice system?

There can be racism in a system even if a particular episode of injustice is not a manifestation of that racism. Every single thing in the criminal justice system is not a manifestation of racism, but many things are.

The mistake we made with black police officers [who accounted for 16 percent of full-time police officers in 2013] is that we’ve never had a good theory for what difference we thought they were supposed to make. So our expectations were, “Well, black police officers will reduce crime better because they’ll be more aggressive and care about crime.” Other people said black police officers will reduce police brutality.

But nobody along the way really ever asked the black officers taking these jobs. Most people that take jobs as police officers are taking them because they’re good jobs. Many who go into these jobs are doing it because its good work.

We need to hire more black police officers in this country because these are good jobs and African Americans should have their fair share of good jobs. But we shouldn’t do it because we think that’s going to change policing. We have to push for police reform in other ways.

Do you support prison abolition?

I think there are two ways of thinking about prison abolition: one is to say we will have a world where there are no prisons. There is no place where people can be confined and I don’t think that’s realistic because I think that in any society, there’s always going to be some people, for whatever reason ― can be mental health or otherwise ― who do pose a threat to society.

Now, how we confine them, how we treat them while we’re there, the respect and dignity we provide them ― those are things that I’m passionate about.

How can black authority figures in the criminal justice system ignite reform?

First and foremost, we have to listen to the voices of people who have been most affected by mass incarceration and over incarceration. Glenn Martin, who spent years in state prison for armed robbery, said those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

For 20, 30, 40 years, we basically have ignored the voices of people who have been incarcerated, families of those same people or people who have been convicted of a crime, but haven’t been incarcerated. I think we have to lift up those voices. We have to reintegrate them into the community and incorporate them into the dialogue about what to do about mass incarceration.

Right now we’ve created these villain-like figures: felon, violent offender, career offender, career criminal. What we don’t know are the human beings that are behind those labels. We realize that people are complicated and also there’s an incredible amount of wasted potential in our prison system. I think the first thing black community members, activists, elected officials, policymakers can do is raise up and listen carefully to those voices that have a lot to tell us.

According to the Center for American Progress, black judges account for 11 percent of federal judiciary positions. You can learn more about the role of black Americans working in the criminal justice system in Locking Up Our Own.

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