James Forman Jr. divides his superb and shattering first book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” into two parts: “Origins” and “Consequences.” But the temptation is to scribble in, before “Consequences,” a modifier: “Unforeseen.” That is truly what this book is about, and what makes it tragic to the bone: How people, acting with the finest of intentions and the largest of hearts, could create a problem even more grievous than the one they were trying to solve.
Forman opens with a story from 1995, when, as a public defender in Washington, he unsuccessfully tried to keep a 15-year-old out of a juvenile detention center with a grim reputation. Looking around the courtroom, he realized that everyone associated with the case was African-American: the judge, the prosecutor, the bailiff. The arresting officer was black, as was the city’s police chief, its mayor and the majority of the city council that had written the stringent gun and drug laws his client had violated.
“What was going on?” Forman asks. “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?”
This is the exceptionally delicate question that he tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate. Seldom does he reprimand the actors in this story for the choices they made.
Instead, he opts for dramatic irony. When he discusses policy decisions first made in the 1970s, the audience knows what’s eventually coming — that a grossly disproportionate number of African-American men will become ensnared in the criminal justice system — but none of the players do. Not the clergy or the activists; not the police chiefs or the elected officials; not the newspaper columnists or the grieving parents. The legions of African-Americans who lobbied for more punitive measures to fight gun violence and drug dealing in their own neighborhoods didn’t know that their real-time responses to crises would result in the inhuman outcome of mass incarceration.