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Locking Up Our Own

Crime and Punishment in Black America

James Forman Jr.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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ISBN10: 0374537445
ISBN13: 9780374537449

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320 Pages



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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Long-listed for the National Book Award
Short-listed for the Inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice

In recent years, America’s criminal justice system has become the subject of an increasingly urgent debate. Critics have assailed the rise of mass incarceration, emphasizing its disproportionate impact on people of color. As James Forman, Jr., points out, however, the war on crime that began in the 1970s was supported by many African American leaders in the nation’s urban centers. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand why.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness—and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.

A former D.C. public defender, Forman tells riveting stories of politicians, community activists, police officers, defendants, and crime victims. He writes with compassion about individuals trapped in terrible dilemmas—from the men and women he represented in court to officials struggling to respond to a public safety emergency. Locking Up Our Own enriches our understanding of why our society became so punitive and offers important lessons to anyone concerned about the future of race and the criminal justice system in this country.


Praise for Locking Up Our Own

"Superb and shattering . . . 'How did a majority ­black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?' This is the exceptionally delicate question that [Forman] tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate . . . The effect, for the reader, is devastating. It is also politically consequential . . . Locking Up Our Own is also very poignantly a book of the Obama era, when black authors like [Michelle] Alexander and Bryan Stevenson and Ta­-Nehisi Coates initiated difficult conversations about racial justice and inequality . . . It’s [Forman's] six years as a public defender that seem most relevant to the sensibility of this book—and that give it a special halo, setting it apart. The stories he shares are not just carefully curated to make us think differently about criminal justice (though they will, particularly about that hallowed distinction between nonviolent drug offenders and everyone else); they are stories that made Forman himself think differently."—Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

"Timely . . . A masterly account of how a generation of black elected officials wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation's capital . . . A big deal and a major breakthrough . . . Forman's novel claim is this: What most explains the punitive turn in black America is not a repudiation of civil rights activism, as some have argued, but an embrace of it . . . Locking Up Our Own compel[s] readers to wrestle with some very tough questions about the nature of American democracy and its deep roots in racism, inequality and punishment . . . [Forman shows] that the solution will lie not only with policy changes but with individual changes of heart, too."—Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The New York Times Book Review

"Forman's beautifully written narrative, enriched by firsthand knowledge of the cops and courts, neither condemns black leaders in hindsight nor exonerates the white-dominated institutions . . . He adds historical nuance to the story of 'mass incarceration' told in . . . The New Jim Crow."—Charles Lane, The Washington Post

"[Forman's] moving, nuanced, and candid account challenges another aspect of the 'New Jim Crow' thesis. He shows that some of the most ardent proponents of tough·on-crime policies in the era that brought us mass incarceration were black politicians and community leadersmany of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement . . . The correctives offered by Forman . . . have consequences not only for how we understand mass incarceration, but for how we go about fixing it."—David Cole, The New York Review of Books

"An honest and balanced book . . . Locking Up Our Own doesn't play down the history of racism in our criminal-justice system, but it does explain why racial bias doesn't tell the whole story . . . If we are going to have national 'conversations' about race in the U.S., a book like Locking Up Our Own ought to set the tone. If it did, these debates would be not only more honest but also more civil."—Jason L. Riley, The Wall Street Journal

"Poignant and insightful . . . Forman deftly moves between . . . examples of black community support for a law-and-order crackdown and the dire present-day consequences of our increasingly punitive and aggressive war on crime . . . Timely and important."—Richard Thompson Ford, San Francisco Chronicle

"[Forman] offers an insightful history of black American leaders and their struggle to keep their communities safe from police and criminals alike . . . From both these personal experiences and the history that helped shape them, Forman uncovers the black community's role in waging wars on crime and drugs."Matt Ford, The Atlantic

"Nuanced and insightful . . . Locking Up Our Own relentlessly explores the startling paradox that punitive measures today considered discriminatory were initially supported in the black community on the grounds of self-protection." —Owen Hamill, Seattle Book Review

"[Locking Up Our Own] mirrors a Greek tragedy of national proportions in its notes of dramatic irony . . . But there also runs a deeper seam in Forman's examination of crime and race in America, one of great compassion . . . An important book for this era of reanimated black awareness."—Brandon Tensley, Pacific Standard

"The big spring book to argue about . . . Forman can catalogue more dysfunctional systems at close range than The Wire did."Boris Kachka, Vulture

"Eloquent . . . A gritty, often revelatory work of local history, interspersed with tales of Forman's experiences as a public defender . . . Locking Up Our Own is a sobering chronicle of how black people, in the hope of saving their communities, contributed to the rise of a system that has undone much of the progress of the civil rights era. But, as Forman knows, they could not have built it by themselves, and they are even less likely to be able to abolish it without influential white allies, and dramatic reforms in the structure of American society."—Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

"Locking Up Our Own is an engaging, insightful, and provocative reexamination of over-incarceration in the black community. James Forman Jr. carefully exposes the complexities of crime, criminal justice, and race. What he illuminates should not be ignored."—Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative

"A sharp analysis . . . Forman shows how our nation has gotten to the point where so many citizens—primarily blacks—are imprisoned . . . 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 . . . Certain to stir debate, this book offers an important new perspective on the ongoing proliferation of America's 'punishment binge.'"Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


All of us in the public defender’s office feared the Martin Luther King speech. Curtis Walker, an African American Superior Court judge in Washington, D.C., was famous for it. And today Brandon, my fifteen-year-old...

About the author

James Forman Jr.

James Forman Jr. is a professor of law at Yale Law School. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, numerous law reviews, and other publications. A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, he spent six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., where he cofounded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School.

Ifeoma Nwokoye

James Forman Jr.

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