James Forman Jr., a Yale law professor and former public defender in Washington, D.C., explores the culpability of African Americans in creating mass incarceration in his new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” The New York Times says the “superb and shattering” book pivots on the question of how people, acting with the finest of intentions and the largest of hearts, could create a problem even more grievous than the one they were trying to solve. Referring to Washington, he writes, “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?”
Forman is compassionate. Seldom does he reprimand the actors in this story for the choices they made. When he discusses policy decisions first made in the 1970s, the audience knows what’s eventually coming — that a grossly disproportionate number of African American men will become ensnared in the criminal justice system — but none of the players do. Not the clergy or the activists; not the police chiefs or the elected officials; not the newspaper columnists or the grieving parents. The legions of African Americans who lobbied for more punitive measures to fight gun violence and drug dealing in their own neighborhoods didn’t know that their real-time responses to crises would result in the inhuman outcome of mass incarceration.