BOOK REVIEW: The Root Causes of Mass Incarceration

James Forman Jr.'s Locking Up Our Own is a sober & compelling look at how we got here

By Crawford Coates  |   Jul 28, 2017

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America—deftly researched and superbly written—examines the root causes of mass incarceration, specifically that of black males. We need this book: It’s especially pertinent to American law enforcement in this critical moment.

The author is James Forman Jr., a Yale Law professor, charter school founder, former public defender, and the son of civil rights activists. Forman has done the work. He takes as his premise a courtroom in Washington, D.C., in 1995, where he was defending a black teen brought up on gun charges. Foreman notes that everyone in the court was black: Not just the defendants, but the judge, police, attorneys, bailiffs, and himself. The court building itself was named after H. Carl Moutrie, the city’s first black chief judge.

His question: “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?” So he sets out to find the answer, which, as we will see, will have profound impacts.

By 1995, the United States, just 5% of the world’s population, held 25% of its prisoners—about 50% of whom were black. According to Forman, the rates in Washington, D.C. at that time, were much higher: Although nationally one in three young black men was under criminal justice supervision, in D.C. it was one in two. His locus is D.C., though he makes excursions to other cities with large black populations to demonstrate broader currents.

The reasons he arrives at are as simple and commonsensical as they are, ultimately, depressing. A series of small, local decisions made largely within African-American communities would have huge and unforeseen ramifications over time. 

African-America Law Enforcement

Cops should buy this book for the section on the integration of blacks into law enforcement alone. The African-American call for black police officers was, he writes, “an essential, if forgotten, part of our nation’s civil rights struggle” going back to the 1860s. None other than Martin Luther King Sr. led the fight to hire black officers in Atlanta. After much debate and threats of violence, on Dec. 1, 1947, the city council passed a resolution and agreed to hire eight black officers.

The problems began immediately. Although the eight officers were near celebrities within the black community of Atlanta—dubbed the Atlanta Eight—they were sanctioned to the basement of a YMCA, weren’t allowed to drive patrol vehicles, and had no arrest power over whites.

In D.C. it was similar. Blacks entering the ranks in the 1960s faced abject discrimination. Two officers (including Burtell Jefferson, who would become its first black chief) began a secret school for black officers so that they could ace promotional exams. Forman quotes Jefferson on this: “Blacks must assume the attitude that ‘you might beat me on the rating, but I’ll beat you in the books.’”

Throughout the 1970s cities across the U.S. were pushed—often forced, cursing and punching—to hire and promote black police officers. As Forman notes, the question of whether those officers would be “pro-black or antiblack was beside the point. They were not joining the force with dreams of becoming a warrior for (or against) the race.” They wanted good jobs, and yet they soon became pawns in the politics of intra- and interracial hierarchy and targets for attack.

In an age struggling (and largely failing) to hire the best candidates from the most diverse possible applicant pool, today’s law enforcement leaders would do well to pay attention to this history.

The Impact of Drugs in the Black Community

Today we find ourselves in the midst of an opioid crisis, which claimed more than 33,000 lives in 2015, the largest segment of a national overdose epidemic. Addiction is central to this book. Its affects on the African-American have been especially acute. 

The ravages of heroin were still in the memories of many blacks in the 1970s: “[I]n the early to mid-1960s, less than 3% of new inmates [at the D.C. Jail] were addicted to heroin, but beginning in 1967 the growth rate exploded, tripling by 1968, then tripling again by February 1969. By June 1969, an astonishing 45% of men admitted to the jail were addicts.” 

A disparate mix rose up to fight this scourge. For black nationalists, drugs were the stuff of “white-face dog mafia.” For clergy it was sin. Black politicians responded in kind: A 1975 bill that would have reduced sentences for marijuana possession in D.C. was largely defeated by blacks, even though it would overwhelmingly be black males paying the putative cost for this. Drug abuse had been an existential threat to the black community–a primary civil rights issue, as Forman notes–and marijuana was, in this case, seen in that light.

The effort to reduce drug use and crime in black communities with increased sentences was echoed in California, where none other than Maxine Waters authored a 1979 bill aimed at curbing PCP use. The editorial board of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a prominent black newspaper, wrote that PCP dealers should be “tarred and feathered, burned at the stake, castrated, and any other horrendous thing which can be imagined.” The problem is, as Forman demonstrates, law enforcement and tough-on-crime rhetoric weren’t up to the task. Drug use and crime continued to rise, even as record numbers of offenders were sent to jail.

Alone this might not have had such dire consequences, but it was soon followed by another development: mandatory minimum sentencing. What I didn’t realize was that, for some, judicial discretion was perceived to favor white defendants. In fact, the strongest proponents for mandatory minimums in D.C. were black: Burtell Jefferson, the former chief., and John Ray, an ambitious city council member with an eye on the mayor’s seat. The mandatory minimums Ray proposed were, as Forman puts it, “rooted in a race-conscious defense of the black community.”

“And then,” as he puts it, “came crack.”

The introduction into the black community of this newer and much deadlier form of cocaine would become the most lethal drug period in our history. Crack dealers dealt not just in drugs but in violence: open, brazen, callous, and with weapons and tactics new to street-level crime. The murder rate in D.C. tripled within seven years, until it was the murder capital of America. By 1987, 60% of arrestees had crack in their systems.

How did the nation’s black leaders react to this scourge in their communities? As you might expect, given its history. 

The president of the Prince George’s County NAACP said crack was “the worst thing to hit us since slavery.” This sentiment echoed across the nation, and now the gloves really came off. Police found themselves suddenly on the front lines–with new and corresponding weapons and tactics–of an existential threat to the black community. Jails filled up. Crack use abated. But the cost to the communities was huge, and still mounting. 


I’ve lost friends to addiction and know its ravages first hand. I don’t say this to aggrandize my own experience but rather to relate this as a common experience. We don’t speak truthfully about addiction–just as we don’t speak truthfully about class or race or, as this book makes clear, the grayer shades of historyUltimately Locking Up Our Own, for me, offers, if not a solution, then a more human vision of “the system.” He is subtly emphatic on this point: Systems don’t change themselves. The work isn’t going to be particularly glamorous, but suffering in denial just isn’t working.

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Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates is the author of Mindful Responder: The First Responder's Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job and the publisher at Calibre Press.
Crawford Coates

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