A sharp analysis of how African-Americans, due to “profound levels of pain, fear, and anger” over crime and violence in their neighborhoods, have helped shape U.S. policies leading to mass incarceration.
In this candid, readable account, Forman, a former Washington, D.C., public defender and current professor at Yale Law School, shows how our nation has gotten to the point where so many citizens—primarily blacks—are imprisoned. Surveying the recent history of race, crime, and punishment, the author, son of civil rights pioneer James Forman, argues that mass incarceration has developed incrementally as a result of national campaigns and federal actions as well as of “mundane” local decisions made around the nation. With a focus on majority-black D.C., where he represented criminal defendants and co-founded a charter school for school dropouts, Forman traces the rise of drug addiction and criminality, the resulting widespread fear in black neighborhoods, and the demands in the 1980s for “tougher criminal penalties” that set “a national precedent for punitive sentencing.” Most people punished under policies to combat drugs and guns, he writes, have been “low-income, poorly educated black men.” Especially insightful are Forman’s discussions of the rise of black policing in the 1960s (“a surprising number of black officers simply didn’t like other black people—at least not the poor blacks they tended to police”), the “hostile, unforgiving mindset” that prompted “warrior policing” during the 1980s crack epidemic, and the practice of “pretext policing,” in which routine traffic stops are used to seek evidence of criminal activity, especially in ghetto areas. Writing with authority and compassion, the author tells many vivid stories of the human toll taken by harsh criminal justice policies. He also asks provocative questions—e.g., what if the D.C. drug epidemic had been treated as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem?
Certain to stir debate, this book offers an important new perspective on the ongoing proliferation of America’s “punishment binge.”