Review: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

Book cover to Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Forman takes a delicate position in the discourse on racism within the criminal justice system. He easily articulates the points that many others have offered up to illustrate that since the end of slavery, the criminal justice system within the United States has been used to disproportionately disrupt and disenfranchise the lives of people of color. He never waivers from that but offers an insightful and critical consideration of the role that the African American community has played in the mass incarceration of other African Americans. In this way, his work fits in nicely with From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Forman is not trying to undermine ceaseless battles that people have had to fight but rather draw out the nuance of how those battles have lead to productive and unproductive outcomes. In this case, Forman's point is that many African American communities argued for increased sentences (in particularly, mandatory minimum sentencing) for drug, gang, and violent offenses. But he makes sure to emphasize that this was not the sole practice of the African American communities but part of a three-prong approach that included additional community resources, education, and better social systems. However, those ideas largely feel on deaf (white) ears. Forman incorporates other relevant topics such as black on black crime (something that African American rallied to be taken seriously for decades because the courts did not care) and the distinction of class within African American communities and how this created different encounters with the criminal justice system. However, what's most compelling about Forman's book is how he gives readers a glimpse into these issues. Forman made a conscious decision to become a public defender and so for each of the issues that he's exploring he starts by introducing the reader to one of his defendants and explaining how the past decisions made by racialized criminal justice system and coupled with voices within the African American community have generated the situation that his client is facing in each chapter. It's a powerful means of connecting policy to outcome and helping readers understand the depths of the problems and how pervasive they are within the criminal justice system.

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