Sunday, May 21, 2017

Locking Up Our Own


I read James Forman Jr.'s new book, Locking Up Our Own, quickly.  It is the kind of book that I like.  Indeed, it is the kind of book that I have tried on several occasions to write.

Locking Up Our Own is mercifully short -- less than 250 pages.  No padding here.  It is well-written.  The authorial voice is modest and unassuming.  Despite the urgency of Forman's message, which is essentially to make the case for a more humane approach to criminal justice policy, his tone is even-handed.  It never feels like he is over-egging the batter.  Despite this, I read the last dozen or so pages with tears in my eyes, moved by the story of Forman's attempt to help one of his clients when he served as a public defender.

While he brings to life a handful of interesting cases from his practice, Forman's primary purpose is to tell the story of the last 40 years of criminal justice history in the United States.  He rigorously -- and, in my opinion, correctly -- focuses on local politics and policymaking.  Forman uses Washington, D.C. as the launching pad for his narrative.  D.C. is my hometown and I can attest that Forman captures the mood and dynamics of the city well.

In particular, Forman nails the impact of the crack epidemic, both on the streets and in the corridors of power, in the 1980s and 1990s.  Washington was a violent city in those years and, as Forman documents, the calls for more law enforcement and tougher penalties came from almost all quarters -- including the black community.

Forman treats the central players in this history with nuance and understanding.  As he details, their actions directly contributed to the growth of incarceration in the United States.  But Forman gives them their due.  He acknowledges that they were responding to an unprecedented calamity -- the public safety crisis in D.C. was real and demanded immediate action.

Forman doesn't offer up pantomime villains or grand unifying theories.  In the end, he concludes that mass incarceration is "the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors.  If that is correct, mass incarceration will likely have to be undone in the same way."  That sounds right to me.