Black Judges, Black Politicians, Black Prisoners

James Forman, Jr.

Political elites built the carceral state — and not just white ones.

Former attorney general Eric Holder and President Obama. Chuck Kennedy / Obama White House Archives

Interview by
Cedric Johnson

Mass incarceration affects millions of people in the United States, disproportionately locking up poor and working-class African Americans. However, the issue doesn’t impact the black population equally. While Michelle Alexander’s framing of the issue as “the new Jim Crow” helped popularize the discussion of mass incarceration, wealthier African Americans are less likely to be imprisoned and more likely to be the judges, politicians, and bailiffs implementing mass incarceration, while poor and working-class whites also fill jails across the country.

James Forman, Jr. grapples with this reality. In his new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Forman, a professor at Yale Law School, draws on his six years as a public defender to interrogate how it is that he often found himself in a Washington D.C. courtroom with a black judge, black prosecutor, and black bailiff, in a city with a black police chief and black mayor, all of whom carry out aggressive policing and sentencing practices.

While Forman doesn’t minimize the criminal justice system’s roots in racism, he addresses the silence in many books on criminal justice when it comes to the role of the black political class in implementing and carrying out these policies.

Cedric Johnson, associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of New African American Politics, caught up with Forman to talk about his new book, what led him to write it, and what it means to write publicly about the conflicting interests within black America.


CJ

Locking Up Our Own is the best thing I’ve read in recent years on the evolution of mass incarceration and some of the contradictions within black political life. It does an excellent job bringing together these historical developments in a way we haven’t seen in so many other studies of mass incarceration.

You open this book with a really riveting account of your day-to-day work as a public defender, and describe a moment when the contradictions between black political empowerment and black mass incarceration became too much to bear. How did you arrive at this book project? Was it in that moment where the weight of it all became too great, or were there other important sources and experiences that inspired your work?

JF

I did my best to authentically and accurately describe my thinking process, but I necessarily had to condense some things down, and the story that opens the book is one example. That moment happened, but it’s also true that those feelings happened over and over again. It’s a process. The District of Columbia’s public defender’s office was probably half African American. Our leadership was consistently African American and it was also full of down-for-the-cause, committed white people. So it was a place where you could have conversations like “Why in the hell are these judges doing this to our clients?” We definitely reserved a special ire for judges who had been public defenders at some point, but were now hardcore. This was also true for African American judges to a lesser extent. There were so many black judges who were harsh, but it wasn’t so distinctive that someone would be like “I can’t believe he did this and he’s black” because that just happened a lot, and so you got over that.

We definitely had conversations about the contradictions. We had conversations about the fact that we had a racial justice analysis for our work — that was what brought us to the work— and yet we were in an environment where we often felt like everyone else in the courtroom hated us and our clients. I don’t just mean the judge and the prosecutors. I mean the bailiff, court reporter, courthouse staff, and in a place like D.C., a lot of those were folks of color. It is common to be in a majority-African American courtroom in the District. The place that is least likely to be true is the prosecutor’s office, the part of the court system that’s still least diverse.

CJ

Did you have other motivations for writing the book?

JF

After I became I professor I noticed that we had developed a robust, powerful, and persuasive literature that fleshed out in granular and compelling details all of the ways racism has manifested itself throughout American history to lead to black subordination and mass incarceration.

I consumed that literature and found it very explanatory, but I never felt like it fully explained the reality I saw in a place like D.C. I remember feeling like there was another story that sits alongside and complements this that hasn’t been told. I’d read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I would read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Those are just the best sellers! In the academic community there are fifty books for every one that achieves that kind of prominence, and so many other academic books that matter, which those popular works are building upon. With all of that accumulated literature, it felt all the more compelling to explain why and how it was that so many folks in the black community ended up going along with some of those same highly punitive approaches.

CJ

It seems the problem you described had to be especially vexing given that you characterize D.C. as a haven for refugees from the civil rights movement, a place where there’s an activist culture and where many of the first generation of black elected officials were veteran organizers. Why would they advocate equally harsh public policies in terms of prisons and incarceration? Would you explain how this process unfolded in the District, from the heroin epidemic of the 1970s through the crack cocaine years? And related to that, why is this an important story to tell about D.C. given the potential controversy of focusing on black culpability within both activist and academic circles, which tend to focus on white racism rather than black leadership?

JF

Let me just take that point, the last point first, and then work back. I don’t know why we can’t hold two ideas in our head at the same time. We’re smart people! When I say “us,” I’m talking about human beings but maybe I’m particularly talking about African Americans. To me, it would render us less than fully intellectual and, in a way, less than fully human to say that we can’t hold two ideas front and center simultaneously.

My first case, which brought me into working in the criminal justice system in 1990, was for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on a death penalty case in Provo, Utah. Our client had been convicted of armed robbery and homicide connected to that robbery. In the jury room, after they delivered the verdict of guilty and then death, somebody found a note that had the little hangman stick game. It had blanks for six letters — an “N” and “I” filled out and four letters that weren’t filled out. So I don’t have any doubt that racism at the individual and the societal level was a leading explanation of how America built a system of mass incarceration and then turned a blind eye on its human victims. I don’t lose my ability to have that understanding and analysis.

What happened in that jury room happened just as the story with Judge Curtis Walker and my client Brandon did. I have the ability to keep both of those in my head, and I think everyone else does too. I guess I’m frustrated with someone who says “We can’t keep those both in our head.” I don’t know what they’re saying! I can! Why can’t you? Why are you incapable of simultaneously understanding what happened in Provo, Utah, and in D.C.? Why are you unwilling to think about that?

CJ

You’ve had positive responses in terms of published reviews, but at your book talks, have you ever come across this kind of pushback? I often find that there are some people who will acknowledge black culpability and conservative politics, but they’ll say, “I agree with you but this just isn’t something that should be talked about in public.” I think it should be. If we’re going to resist or contest the state of affairs that we’re stuck with right now, it requires us to be serious and honest about how we got here. I think some folks don’t really want to deal with that part of it. It’s too painful or inconvenient. I don’t know how to characterize it, but they don’t want to grapple with the complicated aspects of political life.

JF

I understand where they are coming from but there are too many people in prison right now in a harsh criminal justice system in D.C. and other cities that have significant black representation to take the postion that we aren’t going to talk about it. There are too many people suffering. If I can effect change, I’m not willing to just let people rot because I don’t want to have a public conversation. To me, it would be the height of privilege to say “it’s messed up but I don’t want to talk about it.”

I couldn’t look somebody in the eye who’s in prison or is going to be prosecuted if I have the ability to persuade people, because a big part of the book is also pointing out the devastating consequences and arguing for a different approach. In ten days, I’m meeting with staff and some members of the D.C. city council. These are the people who make the law, and if I can convince them to make someone’s life meaningfully and demonstrably better, I’m not willing to just let folks suffer because I don’t want to have a public conversation. Also, how do you even have a private conversation today? Where do you go to have a conversation that’s never going to leave the black community? If that time existed, it’s gone now.

CJ

I think those who evoke the notion of “airing dirty laundry” do so as a way to end the conversation. It’s a way to deflect difficult questions. I don’t think they really believe there could be some truly “in-house” conversation. It’s simply a way to dissuade broaching those subjects or truths with which they don’t want to engage.

JF

I’ll just tell you this in terms of reactions. I spoke at San Quentin yesterday to 100 guys there. They all had read the book, had copies of it, and most of them were African American. A lot of them had been in for twenty to thirty years, and they were incredibly grateful for the analysis. I would say it was the most positive reception that I’ve gotten in any event except the book launch party in D.C. where I was surrounded by friends, colleagues, and family members. That was a joyful event, but this was probably a close second. These guys, they know what’s up! To me they were a very good test. Only a few of them were from D.C., but they said they felt like they saw the world they grew up in depicted in the pages of the book.

CJ

I was wondering if we could rewind and talk about how this process unfolded over time in the District, at least the broad outlines of it.

JF

So I think the first thing that’s really crucial to understand is the role that crime, addiction, and violence played. In D.C., the homicide rate tripled in the 1960s and it would double again in the crack years of the late 1980s. It tripled during the heroin epidemic. People remember crack but heroin was the crack before crack. Heroin devastated black communities nationally.

But it’s more than the numbers. I went back and looked at the papers of various city council members who had retired and given their papers to D.C. libraries. Included in those papers are volumes of letters from citizens. One of the things that’s so striking is to see is the pain and anguish that jump off the pages. Citizens are writing — and these are mostly black citizens writing to mostly black elected officials — saying “I feel like a prisoner in my own home. … I feel like a stranger in my own streets … I can’t go outside … I don’t want to walk my children to school by the drug dealers … I can’t leave my children in the park after school because people are shooting … There are syringes in my backyard … What’s happened to our city? … What’s happened to us as a community? … What’s happened to us as a people?” There are these desperate pleas in the years shortly after the end of formal Jim Crow. They see drugs marching through their community and feel overwhelmed.

The next part of the story to think about is: who are the people receiving these letters? They are this first generation of black elected officials and they have their counterparts in judging, policing, and in court functionaries and civil servants. Many of them are from the South, out of the civil rights movement. They are aware of the generations of under-enforcement of the law in black communities. They remember when you didn’t call the police in black neighborhoods. You didn’t call the police if there was a fight or something because they were not going to come and if they did, they were just going to make matters worse.

They remembered this history and they were bound and determined to protect black lives. Chapter two of my book is called “Black Lives Matter” even though it’s 1975 and they didn’t use that phrase. I use that title because I want to highlight that this is a generation of elected officials that is committed to making black lives matter, to protecting black victims who had never received adequate protection of the law. That to me is the judge in the opening story of the book. He saw himself as just as motivated by a civil rights commitment as I did. That’s why he’s talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. But he flips the script by saying that protecting the black victims of crime and communities who have not historically received that protection is his motivation to carry out what I consider to be a very harsh sentence for Brandon. And so that’s the thing that I think is crucial to understand and what I learned through the research: how many individuals saw protecting black lives and protecting black victims of crime as an extension of the civil rights struggle and not in contradiction to it.

The last piece of the explanation focuses on the constraints African American politicians were under. This is a story about black elected officials, but it’s also a story of constraint and the limitations that they were under. The first constraint is that of imagination. Consider David Clark, a city council member who is one of the few white characters that gets a lot of attention in the book. He’s an unusual white character in that he went to Howard University Law School and worked with Dr. King. He’s not a drug warrior at all. He fights for marijuana decriminalization. But he also gets letters from citizens saying “Hey, you know there’s an addict in front of my apartment building or in front of my place of business.” And he takes those letters and he does what a responsible elected official should do and forwards them on to the relevant public agency. They say they’re going to look into it, and he relays that back to the citizens. That’s good constituent services! But he’s constrained by his imagination. Which government agency does he forward the citizen complaint letters to? Is it the Department of Drug Rehabilitation, the Department of Health, or the Department of Mental Health? No, it’s the police department. Because he, like so many Americans, thinks of an addict on the corner as a criminal justice problem. He cannot imagine a different approach.

Black elected officials are also constrained by politics. I spend a lot of time on this in the book. These are local actors, they’re responding to this problem at the city level, but they want help from the federal government. They know they can’t solve these problems on their own. Black officials say “we want gun control, we want a national investment in jobs in the inner cities, we want a Marshall Plan for Urban America, we want black communities to be treated the way Europe was after World War II, to invest, rebuild, and revitalize.” So they have an “all of the above” strategy to fight crime and violence but they only get one of the above, they get law enforcement.

They are also constrained by history: a history of racism and a history of white supremacy that has meant that they are responsible for protecting communities that have always gotten too little public investment. They were elected to represent black neighborhoods that were the first to lose jobs, were redlined, were stripped of their wealth by rapacious lenders, and that have always gotten inadequate public services. So they’re protecting or representing neighborhoods that are desperate. Early on at a conference at Columbia University, history professor Jelani Cobb asked me “Is it fair to say that people you’re writing about had the power to respond to crime but they didn’t have the power to respond to the underlying conditions that helped cause crime?” And my answer to him at that conference was yes, that’s a very good summary of the dilemma that they were facing.

CJ

Over the past few years, some activists have embraced this notion of the politics of respectability, drawing on the work of historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, as a means of criticizing black conservative, bourgeois class dynamics. In your account of the District, you characterize the ways politicians and residents responded to the heroin epidemic in terms of a “politics of responsibility.” How do you see those two concepts? How are they related? How do you distinguish between those two?

JF

I think both of them have been present at different times. When I think of the politics of respectability, I think of it as a politics by which respectable blacks either try to expel or shun the criminal element from the community. Someone like D.C. city councilmember Doug Moore was not practicing that kind of politics. Doug Moore was a black nationalist, civil rights leader, and minister who campaigned on and purported to govern as a spokesperson for the black poor. That’s the role that he filled in public life. He viewed himself as responsible for them, so he didn’t want to shun the disreputable politics of the community, which is what I think of respectability politics as doing. But he viewed marijuana as a gateway to heroin, which other people were also arguing at the time.

Jackie Robinson’s son was addicted to heroin. He went around to black churches and black civic organizations in the early 1970s and said “Look, my son Jackie Jr. is a heroin addict and he started with marijuana.” So this idea of marijuana as a gateway was a very serious idea in black communities. Doug Moore felt he was responsible for black youth, and having that in his mind, he took the position that “you should not use drugs.” But here’s the error that he made. He underestimated, partially for understandable reasons, the harms that would follow criminalization. He thought he knew what harms came from marijuana use: you’re not going to do as well in school, you might get introduced to a harder drug, you’re not going to be in the vanguard of the revolution if you’re just sitting around high. So he focused on those.

What he didn’t focus on adequately were the harms that would come from criminalization. Moore and other opponents of marijuana decriminalization didn’t realize in the 1970s the full implications of what they were doing. It wasn’t until later in the 1980s and 1990s that Congress would pass laws that made it harder for you to get a student loan, harder to get into public housing, harder for you to get a job. It wasn’t until later that we had a technological revolution that created greater access to court records.

CJ

I really appreciated the chapter on the early campaigns demanding the recruitment of more black police officers. I think that your discussion of that work in Atlanta in the 1940s and the District in the 1960s adds another layer of complexity. Many residents had hoped hiring black officers would deliver better services and treatment of black residents. Why didn’t those efforts produce the results many activists anticipated?

JF

That’s actually my favorite chapter in the book, in part because it was the most unfamiliar to me when I was doing the research. But to answer your question, I think the problem is twofold. Advocates for hiring black officers never had a clear theory on what difference black police officers were supposed to make. Some people argued that they would be more aggressive because they would actually care about crime. It’s hard now to remember a time when white police didn’t go into black communities to do policing, but it is true. Others believed that black police would be able to make distinctions within the black community, and that white police officers can’t even tell us apart. So here we’ve got some respectability politics, some of them were saying “we’re the good ones, we’re upstanding,” and a black officer will know that.

By the 1960s, we get this other argument, the argument that a black D.C. newspaper columnist named John Lewis made (he’s not related to the civil rights leader with the same name). Lewis says that black officers will be less brutal. After a white cop shot someone for jaywalking, Lewis writes an opinion piece called “Black Officers Won’t Shoot Black Jaywalkers,” and his explicit claim is that black police officers will be less violent. The problem in part is that these two arguments are somewhat in contradiction with each other. The former argument is that they’re going to be more aggressive in rooting out the less respectable elements, while the latter assumes they’ll be more restrained. The other problem is that along the way no one was actually asking the black officers, the people who were taking these jobs. Sociologists and others eventually asked and when they did, most black officers said, “because it is a good job,” not “because it is next frontier of the civil rights struggle.”

On top of that, many of these new black officers were going into environments that were white-dominated, and regardless of who’s running it now, had a history of command and control, and demanded compliance and a code of silence. Many police departments had the attitute, “We’re warriors not social workers … we have a code of silence.” These black officers are entering that context and even if you were a civil rights activist turned police officer, it would be hard to buck that. Now just imagine you’re someone trying to get a job and provide for your family. How in the world are you going to buck that? And to me, that taken together is a story of why changing the racial composition of police departments hasn’t changed the way police behave and never will.

I still argue for hiring more black police officers, even after everything I just told you. But the reason is not because I think it’ll change how we police, but because I believe we, black people, deserve our share of all jobs in this country. My account of the District notwithstanding, blacks are underrepresented on the police force as compared with our percentage in the local population, so that continues to be a demand. But we also have to change how we police, and those changes are going to be separate from the force’s racial composition.

CJ

That being said, as the protests against police killings have gained momentum over the last few years, more racial diversity and training officers better have resurfaced as solutions. Many people have pointed to the need for black officers with the same old logic. Is there a role for black lawyers, judges, bailiffs, beat cops, and parole officers to play in advancing meaningful criminal justice reform, or should we be looking toward other actors and constituencies?

JF

I would say the same thing applies to those other areas. It’s still true that African Americans are nationally not represented well in all of those areas, particularly for prosecutors. I think by all accounts only 3-4 percent of prosecutors nationally are African American and we’re 13 percent of the population. And this is true for judges and defense lawyers as well. In my mind there’s no more important or pressing issue for black America than wealth creation and job opportunities. In Chicago or any other city, they talk about saturation patrol and response after shootings. If you ask me what should we be doing, I want to talk about saturation jobs, and I’m quite serious about it. I mean actually going and saturating a community with jobs. I think if we did that, not only would we see crime reduction but also a community becoming healthier in different kinds of ways. That’s my belief and I also think that’s true for employment throughout society.

We have to press for change in the logic and functioning of those systems separately from the push to change the racial composition of those jobs. Having said that, in response to your question about if black people in those positions have a particular obligation to change those systems to be more racially equitable, my answer is yes. I simultaneously believe that everybody in society has an obligation to fight for racial justice, and that black people have a special obligation to do it. That’s just where I am. I am respectful of the view that says we don’t, that says “it’s unfair to put an extra obligation on black people.” I get that. I think that’s a fair view, but it’s not mine. I do feel like the people in those positions who are people of color have a special obligation to raise these racial equity issues, and I’m simultaneously aware that it’s unrealistic to expect them to do that.

CJ

That makes sense. There are parts in the book where you really detail the class character of contemporary policing, that working-class and poor neighborhoods are the ones being most intensively surveilled and targeted. I make this argument and Adolph Reed Jr. and Lester Spence, have made the argument as well.

When I make this argument in public, the most common responses evoke anecdotal evidence that class doesn’t matter, often the story of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates being harassed by Cambridge police. In return, I usually remind the audience about how that incident was eight years ago and ask them how many times Gates has been stopped by the police since. By contrast, if we go to some precincts in D.C. or Chicago, we can find young black men who are stopped by the police on a routine basis. We could even go to some rural places and talk to sex workers and people connected in some way to the drug economy, either as users or sellers, or may just live in a neighborhood where that activity is prevalent, and they’re harassed and surveilled in much more intense, frequent manner.

Given those realities, is the racial justice framing in the mode of The New Jim Crow or even some Black Lives Matter rhetoric, adequate for understanding what we’re up against?

JF

Well, I would say the racial justice frame takes us a long way but I don’t know that it’s adequate by itself. I would add a class dimension to it. Focusing on class helps us see why racial profiling by police became a racial justice issue before mass incarceration. If you go back to the 1990s you’ll find magazine articles from the New Republic or the Atlantic that list black people stopped by the police: it’s CEOs to baseball players to black police officers who are not in uniform to people that are heads of state. It’s a who’s who of black America. Racial profiling affects all blacks. No matter how many degrees you have, no matter what your wealth or income, if you are driving, you’re suspect. Because the officer doesn’t know any of those things.

But prison-going is somewhat different. A black man who dropped out of high school is ten times more likely to go to prison than a black man who graduated college. Ten times! Even in the area of mass incarceration, where we’ve had this exponential increase in black incarceration rates, there has been no increase in the likelihood of going to prison for a black man who has gone to college.

So it matters a lot whether we are talking about an issue like prison conditions or an issue like racial profiling. Because class matters in one, but in the other it hardly matters at all. So, that’s an additional level of nuance and complexity that I try to bring to the conversation about race and class.

Let’s add to that a point about white America. I don’t want to leave out other ethnic groups, but blacks and whites are the groups about which we have data. The same class and educational divides holds. You could go to prisons throughout this country where most of the people in prison are white. And they’re almost all poor. You go to the prisons in Vermont, the prisons in Idaho, Maine, and North Dakota, and you’re going see a lot of white people in prison. They’re going to be many white folks who are poor and working class and have addiction in their families, abuse and trauma in their lives, and inadequate education.

I think that we need an account in our criminal justice system that never loses sight of the fact that there’s nothing worse than being black and poor for criminal justice purposes. There is nothing worse. There’s no segment of society that’s more targeted. At the same time we can hold that idea in our heads and also understand that poor white people are dealing with this, and that more educated and wealthy blacks are somewhat protected from the criminal justice system, but not completely protected. That’s the kind of complexity we have to force people to grapple with, and to me, none of that complexity means giving up the racial justice frame.

CJ

You make a strong case for pursuing policy change at the state and local level since that’s where most of America’s prisoners are, and it seems like that kind of strategic focus makes even more sense now given the election of Donald Trump, the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and his gestures toward restarting the war on drugs. Can you talk about that?

JF

I’ve been traveling a lot this past spring, giving talks and meeting with advocates and reformers, people who work inside and outside the criminal justice system. I view what’s happening inside the Beltway as a sideshow in terms of what’s happening on the ground. Around the country, people are desperate for alternatives. There are a lot of people at the local level who realize what they’re doing is not working or is counterproductive.

For example, there’s a program called Law Enforcement Assist and Diversion (LEAD) that started in Seattle and has spread to other cities.They train officers, front-line officers and vice officers, the people that I mentioned before who are getting a call saying “there’s an addict outside my business.” And typically we would send a uniformed officer and arrest the person if they found drugs. But LEAD says “let’s actually give officers the authority to help people get into treatment programs directly so you skip the criminal justice system entirely.” You never get processed. You never go into a courtroom. You never see a prosecutor. You never see a judge. You go directly into a treatment program. It has to be voluntary, it’s not coerced treatment.

Now, the police by themselves can’t make LEAD work. It has to be a community effort because one of the things you have to do is bring the social service providers and the government together to say “we’re going to expand the number of beds that we have.” It’s not something we can snap our fingers and do. However, the research has shown that the people who enter the program are 58 percent less likely to be arrested than those who don’t. So it’s working in terms of reducing recidivism and reducing the number of people who go into the criminal justice system.

CJ

But is this localized or state focus enough? Wouldn’t a localized approach create even more of a patchwork of reforms, where how you’re treated varies widely from state to state and where one might fare better on the coasts or in those states that have more progressive political forces at play, while people in the hinterlands are left with a more reactionary state of affairs in terms of policing and punishment?

JF

That’s America. Our criminal justice system is going to be a patchwork. More than 80 percent of our prison population is state and local. 85 percent of law enforcement is state and local. That’s just a fact of being in a federal system like ours, where the principal responsibility for law enforcement is at the state and local level. Even if it’s coming from the Attorney General, people like Obama and Holder and Sessions have a bully pulpit. They have some influence through funding, but a lot of what they’re funding are state and local initiatives. I think it’s an inevitable aspect of our system that we have to work through.

CJ

Toward the end of the book you begin to talk about the way in which contemporary calls for reform have started to distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders. On the one hand you see it as a progressive move, because now people are taking stock of all the damage that’s been done with drug-sentencing laws, but you conclude that there are some problems with this dichotomy. What are some of the problems with drawing that distinction between offenders and how do you think we should respond instead?

JF

Well, fundamentally once we attach a label to somebody that we’re going to use to show why they’re outside the scope of care and concern, that reduces somebody’s humanity to a label. To me, that’s what the war on drugs did, saying “oh that’s a drug dealer.” Once that label is attached to you, we didn’t have to think further about why you were selling drugs, what options you had available, or the way we, as a society, have failed you. We aren’t asking questions like “are we providing a set of solutions that make it less likely that you’ll sell drugs in the future?” and “is the community you’re part of going to be safer?” Instead, we blindly and vindictively exact revenge knowing full well that’s not going to deter you or protect the community going forward. We used to do that and the label was drug dealer. And to me, the new label is violent offender, or violent criminal, and when we apply that label to you, all the other questions go away. That’s what was happening when Obama gave those speeches supporting leniency for nonviolent drug offenders but no sympathy for those accused of violent crimes.

I think of people like Dante, the client I write about in the closing of the book, who was a violent offender. He committed robbery, the most common offense that we have in our criminal justice system, and he was guilty. He walked up to the man with a knife in his pocket, demanded his money, got it, and ran away. If you’re going to say violent offender and I don’t need to ask anymore questions, well, we’re done! Let’s move on to somebody else whose life we do want to learn about, let’s move on to somebody else’s case where we are willing to ask questions. But I don’t think that’s how the world works. If you talk to anyone that’s incarcerated they’ll tell you that’s not how the world works. And when I learned about Dante’s background, what I found out was that his mom had been addicted to drugs and hadn’t been able to provide for him or raise him in any way that you and I would consider raising a child. He’d fallen in with some kids in the neighborhood and they offered him protection. That’s often how these neighborhood crews work, they make you scared and then they offer to be your protector. And what I’m saying is that almost anyone, including me, including you, would have fallen into that, and made the same set of choices as Dante.

In this case, I was fortunate enough to get the man Dante robbed to listen to his story and, as I recount in the book, he hears the story and I ask him if he’ll go along with my proposal to get Dante into a job training program. I’d actually gotten Dante into a program and I ask Dante’s victim, Mr. Thomas if he will go along with that proposal and he tells me he’ll think about it.

A few weeks later I see Mr. Thomas in court and he says “Mr. Forman, you asked me to forgive your client and I can’t do that but I am trying and I support the program.” The prosecutor is pissed off, the judge is surprised, but he goes along with it. Dante gets sentenced, put on probation, and into this program. I lose track of him because that’s what happens, we lose track of our clients if they don’t get rearrested. That’s one of the failings, the system only gets reminded of its failures.

Years later I’m walking down the street in D.C. and I hear someone calling my name when I walk by a construction site. I look up, and it’s Dante! He comes down and we have a brief conversation because he’s at work, and honestly, as his former lawyer I don’t remind him of one of his life’s high points, but he gives me the basic scope of his life. He tells me he struggled but finally finished the program and now he’s got this construction job. He was working full time, hadn’t been rearrested, and had a seven year old son.

There are hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people like him with a story like that. Any attempt to make our criminal justice system more just, less harsh, more merciful, more humane, has to start with the reality that our prisons are full of people like Dante. They’re full of lost potential, individual stories, people that society has failed, people who’ve caused harm, and people that need to redeem themselves, but ultimately, people who are not beyond hope or redemption.

End Mark

About the Author

James Forman Jr. is a professor of law at Yale Law School and the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the New Republic.

About the Interviewer

Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).