For The Record

Photograph by Jamie Betts
Richmond Law hosted James Forman Jr., a Yale Law School professor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, for a lecture in September. Forman, the 2019 Order of the Coif Distinguished Visitor, spoke about issues such as the intersection of race and class in education, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system. Here is an excerpt.

I could see when I was graduating from law school that there was unfinished business to the civil rights movement. And I’m not saying this is the only area because there are more, but the area where I saw it playing it out, the area where I saw the unfinished business, was in our criminal legal system. You’ll hear me use different words. In the book, I talk about the criminal justice system, and since I’ve been working on the book, like more and more people, I’ve started to alter my vocabulary a little bit. I’m not entirely sure that the system deserves to have the word justice in the title, so you’ll hear me refer to it sometimes as that, sometimes as the criminal legal system or sometimes just the criminal system.

What I knew when I graduated from law school, even though we didn’t have the term mass incarceration then — that was a term that was created in the year 2000 by activists and advocates trying to describe this phenomenon — we had the underlying data. We already knew in the 1990s. We knew that 1 in 3 young black men was under criminal justice supervision. We knew that black women were the largest and the fastest-growing part of the prison system. We already knew that the United States had passed Russia and South Africa to earn the dishonor of the world’s largest jailer. We, already by the mid-1990s had 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisons. I had seen some of the changes and transformations in American society that would help produce those numbers in my own life growing up.

I grew up in a working-class, borderline middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta, and two blocks from my home in either direction were two enormous institutions. In one direction, if you went down to the corner and turned right, you got a General Motors plant. If you went down to the corner and turned left and walked two blocks, you got to the Atlanta federal penitentiary. That’s when I was a kid. Now, fast forward 15 years later, when I’m graduating from law school. One of those buildings has shut down, jobs shipped overseas, and the other building had built an addition, an extra wing. I don’t think I need to tell this audience which is which. If I do, come see me later.