Why do we lock up so many at great cost & for no gain?

Summary: Locking up our Own is a gripping and essential book to help us understand one of the most serious problems affecting America. Professor Forman explains how we got here and recommends a bold path out.

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A review of an essential book about our broken criminal injustice system.

Locking Up Our Own:
Crime and Punishment in Black America

By James Forman Jr. (2017).

This is the second book I’ve reviewed about America’s criminal injustice system. The first is cold and analytical: Locked In by Law Professor John F. Pfaff – “The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.” The second, Locking up our Own by Law Professor James Forman Jr., is the opposite. It is emotional, the most gripping book I have read in many years.

The first gives logical and factually grounded recommendations. The second gives recommendations that require a leap of faith. Combined, these two books give yin and yang perspectives on the problems of and possible solutions to one of the most important of our broken social systems.

Who is locked up?

Forman describes our crime problem, which has improved but remains at horrific levels.

“Roughly 20% of America’s prisoners are in prison on drug charges. …People who have committed a violent offense make up 53% of the nation’s state prisoners, and of those, more are incarcerated for …robbery than for any other. But the label “violent offender,” tossed out to describe a shadowy group for whom we are supposed to have no sympathy, encourages us to overlook their individual stories.”

Black Americans are 13% of the population but 38% of the prison population. Aprox 8% of Black males age 20-24 are in prison or jail, compared with 1% of White males (source). This is a natural result of Black’s higher crime rates. For example, in 2017 there were 17,251 homicides – aprox 8,970 (52%) were of Blacks. Of those, 11,883 had an identified killer – and 6,444 (54%) of those murders were committed by Blacks.

While the causes for this are complex and somewhat mysterious, the history of Black American’s crime is clear. We cannot understand how to get to a better future without seeing how we got it.

Fordham begins with the war on marijuana in 1975, with beliefs not radically changed from those in 1936’s Reefer Madness. He takes us through the crack wars of the 1980s, to the stop and search conflicts of the 1990s. Along the way explains why integration of the police has had disappointing results and why sentencing serves the interest of neither society nor criminals. It is the story of a broken system unable to fix itself, in a society with little interest in justice.

He tells this with clear prose, personalizing the history to avoid the usual abstractions and cliches. I read the daily New York Times during this period, yet I learned much from these chapters. Despite a slight familiarity with these matters from two years as a social worker (in central NY, at the northern tip of Appalachia), these chapters showed me how little I knew. Gaining awareness of one’s ignorance – rather than the illusion of understanding – shows the power of this book.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America
Available at Amazon.

His recommendations.

The core of Locking Up Our Own is Fordam’s recommendation. Sensibly, he does not purport to give comprehensive definitive solutions. What is the first step we can take to climb out of this mess?

“Ever since the day of Dante’s sentencing, I’ve wondered what our criminal justice system would look like if we tried to approach it the way Mr. Thomas did. What if we came to see that justice requires accountability, but not vengeance? What if we came to understand that equal protection under the law, including equal protection for black victims too long denied it, doesn’t have to mean the harshest available punishment? What if we endeavored to make the lives of black victims matter without policies that lead to the mass incarceration of black defendants?

“What if we strove for compassion, for mercy, for forgiveness? And what if we did this for everybody, including people who have harmed others?

“From a policy perspective, this would mean expanding recent reform proposals: instituting pretrial diversion programs to funnel people into drug treatment instead of prison, funding public defenders adequately, giving discretion back to judges by eliminating mandatory minimums, building quality schools inside juvenile and adult prisons, restoring voting rights to people who have served their sentences (or, better yet, allowing people to vote while incarcerated), and welcoming – not shunning and shaming – those who are returning from prison.

“These ideas would have been ridiculed as hopelessly naïve or softheaded as recently as a few years ago. But now, for the first time in forty years, they are getting a hearing. The collective work ahead is to deepen and broaden these efforts, all the while ensuring that they don’t remain limited to the category of nonviolent offenders.”

The author recommends a compassionate mercy-based approach – such as might be recommended by He-Who-Liberals–Cannot-Mention (aka Jesus). I do not know if this would work on a large scale, or what fraction of criminals it would help (e.g., first offenders). I cannot imagine why we do not conduct experiments to find out. The cost of these would be small compared to that of our current insane, ineffective, unjust, and expensive system. We cannot find solutions if we do not look for them.

Ideas, designs, and light bulbs

My recommendations

Forman’s focus is on the downstream part of the criminal justice system. Naturally enough. When the boat is leaking, plugging holes is the top priority. However, some of his specific recommendations seem problematic. Such as “welcoming” into the workplace those convicted of violent crimes. What happens to workers and customers if they become victims of unreformed felons? Will attorneys – such as Forman – sue those companies for punitive damages to penalize their irresponsible actions?

Looking at this from a broader perspective, fixing the criminal justice system is at best a palliative: this can relieve the pain, but does not address the far larger problems causing of Black American’s high crime rate. Nowhere in the book does Forman discuss the broken families and the almost totally matriarchal society of African-Americans, their disinterest in education, and frequent esteem for the criminals that prey upon them (e.g., allowing felons in prison to vote).

I have not the slightest idea about the causes of the pathologies in some (not all) communities of Black Americans. Only people like Forman, and his counterparts in the social sciences, can discover those answers. Whatever the cost, it will be worth every penny. That assumes that the investigators conduct science, not ideologically-driven advocacy. Constructing the project might be the most difficult phase. We need to start now.

James Forman Jr.

About the author

James Forman Jr. is a Professor of Law at Yale. He attended public schools in Detroit and NYC before graduating from the Atlanta Public Schools. He worked as a law clerk for Judge William Norris of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the Supreme Court. Then he worked for six years in the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C.

During his time as a public defender, Forman became frustrated with the lack of education and job training opportunities for his clients. In 1997, along with David Domenici (son of former Senator Pete Domenici), he started the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, an alternative school for school dropouts and youth who had previously been arrested. In 2007, it expanded and agreed to run the school inside D.C.’s juvenile prison. That school, which had long been an abysmal failure, has been transformed under the leadership of the Maya Angelou staff. The court monitor overseeing D.C.’s juvenile system called the turnaround ‘extraordinary.’ {This bio is a lightly edited from his bio at Yale.}

See his publications. See links to some of his publications.

For More Information

It is important to understand what life is like for those living with America’s history of racism, baked as it was into America at the start. For example, see “What It’s Like to Be Black in the Criminal Justice System” by Andrew Kahn and Chris Kirk at Slate, August 2015 – “These eight charts suggest there are racial disparities at every phase of the justice system.”

Good news: “The gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking” by John Gramlich at Pew Research, April 2019.

Ideas! For Holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

To learn more about mass incarceration in America, see the website of The Sentencing Project. For detail see the FBI’s 2015 “Crime in the United States“.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about racismabout crimeabout prison, about our criminal justice system, and especially these…

  1. Our prisons are a mirror showing the soul of America.  It’s not a pretty picture.
  2. More about the collapse of the American Criminal Justice System.
  3. Final thoughts about America’s Criminal Justice System.
  4. The Disgrace of Our Criminal {in}Justice System, and hints of reform in the air.
  5. Can We Fix Our Shameful Prisons? Why they should be, and why we might not do so.
  6. Since 9-11 we have less crime but more fear of crime. A win-win for our rulers!
  7. ImportantAmerica’s unspeakable problem: African-American’s crime rates.
  8. Harsh truths about mass incarceration in America.

Other good books about this vital subject

Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration by David Dagan and Steven Teles (2016). Dagan is a journalist with a PhD in political science. Teles is an Assc. Professor of Pol Science at Johns Hopkins.

Locked In by John F. Pfaff (2017) – “The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.” He is a Law Professor at Fordham. See my review of this important book.

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz (2011). He was a Professor of Law at Harvard. See some excerpts here.

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice
Available at Amazon.
Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform
Available at Amazon.


4 thoughts on “Why do we lock up so many at great cost & for no gain?”

  1. The American criminal justice system reflects the society. And society has huge issues.

    Most criminals are short-term thinkers looking for immediate gratification. Lower IQ is normal. And societal and cultural controls are missing, crime becomes a bigger problem.

    Poverty is a problem, but there have been poor without crime in many areas. Cultural controls can work, but there is likely a nature issue as well.

    I practiced criminal law in the past and even did a bunch of death penalty appeals. Here is what I found: 1, almost every violent criminal was drunk or high at the time of the crime. 2, most only fear punishment. 3, They have no real attachment to the larger society. 4, childhood matters. 5, non criminal opportunity matters.

    A highly liberalized culture such as the typical WEIRD country is too much freedom for most low IQ and non modern folks. Higher IQ folks that are equally unattached to society engage in substantial crime, such as fraud and various cons and syndicates. WEIRD countries are easy to exploit.

    Along with that, the elites need to be punished, harshly. Obama should have thrown 20k Wall Street folks in jail, especially in the mortgage and derivative businesses. CEOs who engage in control fraud should be bankrupted and die in prison. High level government crooks, such as Hillary and Comey, should get 20 to life at best, and in general population. Too Big To Jail must end.

    Solutions: harsh quick punishment combined with societal transformation. Bring back hard labor, remove the privileges from prisons. Immigration moratorium. Reform schools to emphasis discipline, including corporal punishment. Reinstate morality related controls. Reform divorce to remove the incentives for women. Remove rewards for single motherhood.

    But this won’t happen, and crime will continue to climb, even among nonimmigrant populations.

  2. Larry,

    James Forman Jr’s idea of building quality schools inside juvenile and adult prisons idea is a good one. That’s about it, imo.

    The quality of school needed doesn’t exist, as far as I know. How do you teach someone who never had a father, and more than likely not a good mother, who weren’t around to teach them discipline and right from wrong at an early age?
    Or the basic education they never had because more than likely they rarely attended school? They learned the street.
    I’ll assume that at present, most that are jailed sit around doing nothing more than waiting for the day they get out. Back on the street doing the same thing…because they don’t know any better.

    1. Ron,

      I have near-zero experience in such things, so I did not comment on that. But I too am skeptical. Many Americans have belief that schools do magic.

      Yet experience says otherwise. The Baltimore schools were given a vast budget and broad discretion. The results were pretty much nill.

      On the other hand, to be worthwhile – schools need only be more effective than jail. Jail is expensive and produces horrific outcomes. Redirecting that money – perhaps for select first-time offenders – might easily work.

      1. Larry,

        “Redirecting that money – perhaps for select first-time offenders – might easily work.”

        Yes, I think it could. A merit system and hard discipline. I know about that, twelve years Nuns, Priests and Brothers. Mean people, but I never went to prison (yet).
        They could work off their sentence with passing grades and good behavior. A crash course for first timers.

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