Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Forman Jr., a law professor at Yale University, discussed mass incarceration, government intervention and systemic inequalities within the criminal justice system Thursday in Weiser Hall. About 150 students and faculty gathered for this event, organized by the Donia Human Rights Center Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture.

Forman spoke about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” and the historical context that details a past of African-American mass incarceration and intense law enforcement implemented by the government in response to issues within the African-American community.

After law school, Forman worked as a public defender in Washington D.C. He described a particular case in which he defended a 15-year-old who plead guilty to possession of a gun and a small amount of marijuana. After the boy was found guilty and sentenced by a Black judge, Forman recognized what he saw as an African-American jurisdiction incarcerating their own. 

Forman stated that in D.C. at the time of this trial, 40 percent of judges in the Supreme Court were African-American, the City Council and police force were primarily Black, the mayor at the time was Black, as well as the chief prosecutor.

“Even with all that representation of local government, we were doing the same thing that everyone else was doing around the country,” Forman said. “Passing the same laws, enacting the same policies, with the same results. I told you that one third of young Black men were under criminal justice supervision nationally, at the time in D.C., it was one in two.”

Forman spoke about his research reading constituent letters from African Americans to government representatives regarding drug and crime concerns in their neighborhoods during the 1960s and ’70s. Forman attained the letters from retired local politicians who saved these papers.

“The generation of people that are receiving these letters are the first generation of Black elected officials to be elected in any number in this country since Reconstruction,” Forman said. “All of them remember the long history of under-enforcement and under-protection of the law that’s been a hallmark of the Black experience in this country since slavery.”

Forman spoke about the rise in heroin addiction in the 1960s and how the government responded with increasing the presence of law enforcement. According to Forman, when David Clarke, one of two white members of the original city council, received concern about heroin addiction in public spaces, the problem was sent to the police department, where law enforcement response trumped a public health response.

Forman attributed Clarke’s response to the epidemic as a “constraint of imagination,” a constraint that Forman characterized as stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the Black community.

“Because, of course, if the problem is addicts in public space, you would send people whose only tools are handcuffs, and the only place they can take you is the local jail where there is no treatment,” Forman said. “And David Clarke wasn’t a bad guy, but his imagination was constrained.”

Forman acknowledged a history of white-dominated governments which increasingly led to unfavorable decisions toward African Americans passed in the government.

“Institutionalized white supremacy in government and law and policy for over 85 percent of American history and that has an impact that manifested itself in decisions up and down the government, decisions to systematically deprive Black communities and Black citizens of resources,” Forman said.

Forman mentioned the past decisions made in government which resulted in law enforcement’s dependency to respond to disparities present in the Black community.

“The communities that were asking for protection, that these newly elected officials were elected to represent, lacked the resources to protect themselves so they were unduly reliant on the state, they were unduly reliant on police and prosecutors for protection,” Forman said. “It’s those tiny decisions that are individual bricks that collectively have built up the prison nation that we have become.”

Public Policy junior Lena Dreves said she found Forman’s analysis of the system as a whole particularly interesting.

“I think it’s really important how he really constructively criticized each actor and piece in a way where he’s not putting all the blame on one piece of the entire system,” Dreves said.

Forman went on to discuss the solutions he sees to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, including action on a local level.

“It is tempting to look at speeches of presidents and acts of Congress, but it is just as crucial to look at acts at the local level,” Forman said. “Even though what happens in Washington gets so much attention, actually what happens in states and counties and cities is more important for pushing back against mass incarceration than anything that’s happening in Washington, D.C. And so we can’t let the media attention drive our activism and drive our analysis of the problem or of the solutions.”

The right to serve on a jury has been central to the civil rights struggle in the United States, and Forman suggested voting on a jury is crucial to making change.

“Understand the power you can have as a juror … Use the jury box as a site of politics,” Forman said.

Public Policy senior Drea Somers said individuals who work together can play a role to alter the structure of an institutionalized system.

“Movement building is super important,” Somers said. “It is a lot of hard work. … Mass incarceration is a daunting system, but with a few good people and intentional work, we can all chip away at the structure.”

Forman concluded the lecture with a quote from his father, an advocate during the civil rights movement, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr.

“What you have to understand is that we were fighting knowing that the change may not take place in our lifetime. … We were fighting for 10,000 days from tomorrow,” Forman said. “And we were fighting for freedom because fighting for freedom in an unjust system is what makes you human.”

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