Modern Justice and Prisons: a talk with James Forman Jr.

Vinicio Hernandez, News Editor

“Who here has been arrested?” asked James Forman Jr. to a full crowd, the evening of Sept. 26. A few members in the audience stood. “Who knows someone — a friend, a family member, a lover — who has been arrested?” A third of the audience stood. “Now I’m gonna ask you to stand if you believe in second chances.” The entire audience stood. 


Forman, Professor of Law at Yale Law School, gave a talk at UNO on his 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. He began his discussion by explaining his motivation for writing the book: not only to explore contemporary criminal law or law policy, but to represent the “cultural complexities” of the black community. Growing up in a family of civil rights activists, members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee — his father a local leader in Atlanta, his mother a member — he was motivated from a young age to work towards civil justice and social equality. 


During his lecture, he detailed the story of “Brandon,” a young black man who plead guilty to possession of marijuana. Forman was his lawyer for the case. Judged by a black judge in Washington, D.C., he was reprimanded in court for abusing the freedoms granted to him thanks to the work of previous civil rights leaders in the sixties. Forman wondered why, while working in the Public Defender Service in D.C. in the mid-to-late-90s, we still passed the same laws regarding civil protections: locking up youth like Brandon, even with a majority-black city council. Black parents wrote to black elected officials, concerned for the security of their communities, expecting change. Yet the response was still the same: policing and incarcerations. “Why are we making the same policy choice, even in black jurisdictions?” he said to the crowd. Forman saw unfinished business in the work of civil rights leaders of our day if this was still the response, citing three limitations in our elected public officials to accurately grapple this complex situation. 


The first limitation is historical. These officials lack the necessary resources to protect themselves and their communities. Forman cited Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act as an example. Despite its benefits, it ploughed through Auburn Avenue, a historically black neighborhood in Atlanta where Dr. Martin Luther King was raised, fragmenting the community there.


The second is political. There are limitations to what elected officials can do. As Forman described, our officials tend towards an “all of the above” method of policy, begging to Congress to help fund after-school enrichment programs, mental health programs, greater policing and the building of prisons — yet will often only focus their efforts on the prisons.


The last of these is imagination. Our lack of imagination, Forman contends, only moves the problem into the future. We shove responsibility in the present hoping the next generation will be prescient enough to both fix their mistakes and not repeat them. To illustrate this point, Forman tells the story of David A. Clarke, former law enforcement official for Milwaukee County, and the county’s appointed sheriff from 2002 to 2017, who in his time dealt with heroin addicts in public spaces. “He’s not a drug warrior, but he’s an American,” Forman jokes to the audience. So Clarke sent the addicts to the county jail, “the only place they can give you treatment when there is none.” 


Small decisions, such as who to call when getting adequate help for drug addiction, are to Forman the “bricks which has laid out the problem of the American justice system.” Despite this, Forman says, we are breaking new ground and having a conversation about “the human rights crisis that is mass incarceration” in this country. Forman cited the “Take Action” page on his official website (, which gives resources to employers, teachers and faith-based communities on how the public can begin to approach the problem of mass incarceration.


In his devotion to solving this national issue, Forman believes we must each take action. This world is not the world of yesterday, yet there is much to be done. In reforming our values of justice for the coming decade, Forman promotes a new system of justice for our country, “one deserving of justice in its title.”


Remembering his father, Forman encouraged the audience by reminding them of an anecdote of his later life. “The way they teach the Civil Rights Movement is demoralizing,” he recalls his father once saying while watching a documentary on the movement. Though films in our day present the movement as being popular, his father remembers how incorrect this portrayal is. “When you are facing an obstacle,” Forman continued, “people will tell you change is impossible. But when you succeed, they’ll turn around and say, ‘Oh, that was inevitable — I knew that was going to happen.’ And then they’ll make a movie about it.” Forman believes that our generation of young people could inspire that next wave of intense change, however difficult. Perhaps decades from now they will have their own films.