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

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…

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