Mass Incarceration Must Be Dismantled Locally: Forman

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The movement to reduce the U.S. prison population and make the criminal justice system more humane is not in retreat despite President Trump’s strong anti-crime rhetoric, James Forman Jr. of the Yale Law School faculty writes in the New York Times. Forman notes that the same election that Trump won also saw criminal justice reform victories in state ballot initiatives, including in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and California. Prosecutors around the U.S. campaigned on promises to charge fewer juveniles as adults, stop prosecuting low-level marijuana possession and seek the death penalty less often. That may have more impact on incarceration than will federal policies, Forman says. “Mass incarceration will have to be dismantled the same way it was constructed: piecemeal, incrementally and, above all, locally,” writes Forman, who is publishing a book this spring titled, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

Forman cites justice reform groups that are led by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people or their family members. When formerly incarcerated people appear before a legislature, speak at a news conference or write about life in prison, “walls of shame and stigma begin to totter, and others find it easier to speak up.” In a nation in which nearly a third of people have been arrested by age 23, these voices could have a profound collective impact, Forman says. He writes that the criminal justice reform movement has begun to embrace victims and survivors of crime. Pro-prison activists cite “victims’ rights” on the assumption that if the criminal justice system took victims’ experiences and opinions into account, it would treat offenders more harshly. Reform advocates like Lenore Anderson of the Alliance for Safety and Justice in Oakland are challenging the assumption that crime victims necessarily want punitive outcomes, Forman says.

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