PETER ENNS: I'm excited to see you all here tonight. My name is Peter Enns. I'm a professor in the government department and director for the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell.
Tonight is a capstone event for a 3-year theme project on the causes, consequences, and future of mass incarceration in the United States. The theme project team included myself, Maria Fitzpatrick in policy analysis and management, Annna Haskins in sociology, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann in history, and Christopher Wildeman in policy analysis and management. This project was sponsored by Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences, which is directed by Dan Lichter. At ISS, Anneliese Truame, Jackie [? Frelund ?] Brett and Megan Pillar supported the project and helped organize tonight's event. Thank you.
We also thank Vice Provost Emmanuel Giannelis and the Office for the Vice Provost for Research for continued support of the Institute for the Social Sciences. And we are grateful to Cornell's Center for the Study of Inequality directed by Kim Weeden.
An important legacy of our project is an annual speakers series on mass incarceration and criminal justice that is co-sponsored with the Center for the Study of Inequality. So tonight is both a capstone to our project and an inaugural lecture in this new series.
The goal of our theme project was to come together as a team of scholars from different disciplinary perspectives and backgrounds to better understand the causes, consequences, and future of mass incarceration. We believe the project was a success. As you can see here, during the three project years, the team published three books, Incarceration Nation, How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World; Getting Tough, Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America; and When Parents Are Incarcerated, Interdisciplinary Research and Interventions to Support Children. The project also invited numerous speakers to campus, wrote dozens of op eds and published 41 peer reviewed articles in more than 30 different academic journals. The team also obtained more than half a million in grant funding that is supporting our ongoing research on the effects of incarceration on families.
But it is important to remember that this work is just a sliver of the work related to incarceration and criminal justice being done on Cornell's campus. For decades Cornell and the surrounding community have been at the forefront of attention to mass incarceration and having a positive impact on the criminal justice system. These efforts include academic programs, student groups, the Death Penalty Project in the law school, and Cornell's Prison Education program.
Tonight, we all come together to hear from our esteemed speaker. Our speaker tonight clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. He was a public defender in Washington DC for six years. He co-founded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School to serve students who had dropped out and who had previously been arrested. Currently, he is a professor at Yale Law School, where he not only teaches courses such as constitutional law, but also courses like Inside Out prison exchange, where Yale Law students attend class along side men incarcerated in a Connecticut prison.
He is author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Locking Up Our Own. Jennifer Senior of The New York Times wrote, "This is the best book I've read this year." Bryan Stevenson called Locking Up Our Own engaging, insightful, and provocative. Trevor Noah called it a beautiful book. Chris Hayes said it is an absolutely essential read. I should also note that throughout more than a year of planning this talk and every communication we had, he was gracious and accommodating. It is truly one of the honors of my life to welcome James Forman, Jr.
JAMES FORMAN: Wow, that might be one of the nicest introductions that I've ever received. I have to tell you, I'm a little bit nervous. And I'm going to blame the organizers and all of this work that they just did for my nervousness. So when you travel and get ready to do a talk, you check into your hotel. And it's not uncommon to have like a little gift bag. And normally the gift bag has like a mug that says Cornell or it has maybe an umbrella. Or like a flash drive could be the gift.
But now you all's group here is very special and very intimidating, because when I showed up in my hotel, there was this bag. And what was in it was a series of books, [LAUGHTER] including a number of the books and the peer reviewed articles, it was like they were saying, listen, if you come to Cornell, you better read before you give your talk.
But I just want to say in my sort of defense, just to say how much I'm aligned with you all, so these are the books that they gave me. But I want you to know that what I took out of my bag, which I already had with me on the plane, was Professor Kohler-Hausmann's book. So I now have two copies that I can get signed later today.
I really am happy to be here. There are going to be copies of my book available for sale. And I'm going to sign after. And there's one thing that I want to say about that upfront. I don't know how it is now, but when I was a student, I was on heavy, heavy financially. And financial aid is great. Wouldn't have made it through college or law school without it.
But also in my experience, it only covers the basics and never really covers any extras. Or at least it didn't in my day. And I remember I went to a book talk. And I wanted to buy a book, but I just didn't have-- I couldn't afford it. And so I can't say that I thought about it then, because I wasn't audacious enough to think at that time that I would write a book. But when I did write this book and I first went to my first college to speak about it, I remembered that moment. And so something that I've always said and then I'm going to say today is that I don't want the cost to be in the way of anybody getting the book.
So when you go out there to the bookseller, pick up the book, you pay whatever you can pay. And it's including a handshake if that's what you pay. And you get the book and the rest will be taken care of.
So I thought I would start by talking a little bit about what brought me to want to write this book. And my first motivation had nothing to do with the criminal legal system. I should say in the book, I call it the criminal justice system. And more and more, I've started calling it, as a lot of people do, the criminal legal system, because less and less I've been feeling like it deserves to have the name justice in the title. So you'll hear me today go back and forth between the two.
But my first motivation had nothing to do with that system. I don't know if there's anybody else out here who's like this. But for me, one of my great frustrations if I go to a film or I watch a television show and there are no African-American characters, or even worse, there's one person who's supposed to be a stand in for the entire black community and be representative of all of the black experience and black perspective. And I know that's not true.
So one thing I knew is that when I wrote my first book, I wanted to write a book that delved deep into black intellectuals, black politics, blacks activism, black citizens, ordinary folks, and show the divisions and the disagreements and the multiplicity of perspectives that exist and are available in the black community and that so rarely make it onto the screen or make it onto the page.
My second motivation came directly out of the criminal legal system. So this is a book-- it's got history. It's got argument. But fundamentally, it's a book of stories. The history and that argument are wrapped in a set of stories.
And I should say anybody, who's standing up, if you want to stand up, that's fine. But you should feel free, it's not going bother me at all if you come in and you make your way to a seat.
It's fundamentally, as I was saying, a set of stories. And one of those stories that I tell early on in the book is about a young man I represented by the name of Brandon. Brandon was a teenage client, 15 years old. He had been charged with and pled guilty to possession of a gun and possession of a small amount of marijuana. $15, $20 worth. And he was facing sentencing. And I was his public defender.
And I had taken the job of being a public defender, because I viewed it as the civil rights work of my generation. My parents met in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the major four civil rights organizations of the 1960s. My dad is black. My mom is white. My dad was executive secretary. My mom was a member of the organization. They were an interracial couple at a time when those marriages were illegal in many states in this country.
And their generation and their sacrifice changed and transformed this nation in ways that we have yet to even fully acknowledge. Theirs was the generation that faced down Bull Connor's dogs, that marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that went to DC 250,000 strong for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Their generation produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. They'll tell you-- I mean not here, because y'all get the real story in your government, but in a lot of places, they'll tell you that was passed by Congress and signed by the president and it was. But the story of how it came to be is a story of activists and activism and struggle and fight. And my parents were part of that.
And yet and still with all the change that they had created in this country, as I was graduating from law school, I could see that there was unfinished business to the civil rights movement. And the place that I saw the unfinished business manifesting itself was our criminal legal system. I'm not saying it's the only place, but it's the place that I saw it.
When I was graduating from law school, we didn't have the term mass incarceration. That's a term that was created by activists and advocates and scholars in the year 2000 to try to describe this phenomenon that people were witnessing. We didn't have the term, but we already knew some of the numbers that those of y'all know. We knew that one in three young black men was under criminal justice supervision. The Sentencing Project had reported that.
That same report by the Sentencing Project revealed that black women were the largest single growing sub-population of the prison system. We already knew that the United States had passed Russia and South Africa in the late 1980s to earn the dishonor of being the world's largest jailer. We already knew that the United States had 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners. And I had seen some of the changes and transformations in our society that produced those numbers. I had seen them growing up in my own neighborhood.
I grew up in a working class, mostly African-American neighborhood in Atlanta. And I could even see as a child racial disparities in policing. Most of my friends were black. I was light enough that police didn't know what I was. And there was a difference in how I was treated when I was by myself or when I was with my friends.
I also know growing up that two blocks from my house were two enormous institutions. One way was the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. If anybody's from Atlanta, you go all the way on Boulevard. It dead ends at the penitentiary. In the other direction two blocks was a General Motors plant. That's when I was a child.
Now, by the time I'm graduating law school, one of those buildings had shut down. Jobs shipped overseas. Doors padlocked. Couldn't get in. The other building had built an addition. I don't think I need to tell you all which is which.
So that reality, wanting to fight that struggle and resist those forces had called me to be a public defender. And it had called me to be standing next to Brandon in Superior Court.
I was asking from the to be put on probation. I had a letter from a teacher and a counselor to his school. His mother and grandmother were there in court. They had been there for every hearing. They wanted him to come home.
The prosecutor in the case was asking for him to go to Oak Hill. Now Oak Hill was DC's juvenile facility. And like a lot of juvenile prisons around this country, it combined a very nice sounding name-- right? Like oak tree on a hill, I mean it sounds good-- with a brutal and harsh reality.
Like so many of our juvenile prisons. It was a place where drugs and violence are rampant. It was a place where there were no real programs. There was some stuff on paper, but when you went there, you saw it wasn't happening. It was a place where as a young person, you always left out worse off than when you went in.
The judge had to make the decision in the case-- Judge Curtis Walker. He's an African-American judge. That's not unusual in DC. About 40% of the Superior Court bench was African-American. It's higher now.
So Judge Walker-- and I should say it's not his real name. Brandon is not his real name. These are real stories. But I've changed the names completely to protect the identities and the stories of my clients.
Judge Walker looks out in the courtroom. He sees a young black man facing sentencing, an African-American defense lawyer, a black prosecutor. And then the judge has to pass sentence. And he looks at Brandon, and he says, son, Mr. Forman's been telling me that you've had a tough life and you deserve a second chance. Well, let me tell you about tough, son. Let me tell you about Jim Crow segregation.
See, the judge had been a child in those years. So he proceeded to lecture Brandon on what it was like. And he said, here's the thing, people fought, people marched, people died for your freedom. Dr. King died for you. And I tell you this, he didn't die for you to be running and gunning and thugging and carrying, embarrassing your family, embarrassing your community carrying that gun. So I hope, Mr. Foreman, is right, son. I hope you turn it around one day. But today, in this courtroom, actions have consequences, and your consequence is Oak Hill.
Locked him up. And I was so angry, I was so frustrated, I was so furious that day with the judge-- I mean, think about it. He had taken the same history that I just told you motivated me to be a public defender and had somehow to my mind twisted and warped it and turned it around on itself and used it as a justification, a moral rationale, for locking up Brandon.
Over time, after that day, as I began to work through my anger at the judge-- and as you can probably tell from my voice I'm still in process on that-- but as I began to work through it, I began to reflect on an important fact, which is that the judge wasn't alone. The city council that passed the gun and the drug laws that Brandon was being sentenced under was a majority black city council. The mayor in DC was black. The police force was a majority black. The police chief was black. The chief prosecutor in the city, y'all, was none other than Eric Holder, way before you heard of him as attorney general.
And so I began to think about and wrestle with this question, what happened in this country over the last 50 years that was so powerful, that was so all engulfing, that was so profound and all encompassing, that even in this majority black jurisdiction with some measure of control of its local politics and its local criminal law, how was it that we were doing the same thing, passing the same laws, adopting the same policy solutions as the rest of the country? Because I told you that one in three young black men was under criminal justice supervision nationally. In DC it was worse. It was one in two. And so that is the question of the book.
Now, we can stop now and everybody could go get a copy, and you can see the answer. But I'll give you a brief kind of highlight touch on some of the arguments.
So the first thing that I argue we have to grapple with is rising crime and violence and the fear and the anger that they generated over the last 50 years in African-American communities and especially in the 1980s and 1960s. One of the books the y'all have that they gave to me to read-- fortunately, I'd read it already, but Professor Enns talks about this question in his book. Rising crime and violence in the 1960s and 1980s, especially I say in the African-American community-- so the '80s and early '90s is the crack years. But in the 1960s we have the heroin years.
Heroin did to black America in the 1960s, what crack would do more famously two decades later-- devastated communities. The homicide rate in this country doubled in the 1960s.
Please, come in and sit down.
It tripled in Washington DC, tripled in a decade. Heroin, they tested everybody entering the DC jail every year for substances. Did then and still do. In 1963, they concluded that 4% of the people entering the DC jail were heroin addicts. By 1969, just six years later, the 4% had become 45%. And that's an epidemic. But it wasn't just the numbers, it was the response that they generated in the community.
So to write this book, the only way that it turned out to be possible is I was able to find archives in local government, black elected officials, especially in the DC area, a bunch of them turn their papers over to local libraries. And the papers, fortunately for me, included not just the statements of government officials, but letters that they had received from their constituents.
Now, nothing is scanned. There's no keyword searches. Your laptop will not help you here. But there's pieces of paper in folders. And if you look through them for summer after summer, you will find, you this see this incredible social history of ordinary citizens.
So this is DC in the 1970s is a 70% black city, chocolate city called it. So there are black citizens writing to mostly black elected officials. 11 out of the 13 members of the first DC council are black.
And what do these letters reveal? They reveal a pain and a suffering. People say, we just fought the civil rights movement, and yet I can't take my kids to school because they're selling drugs on the corner and I don't want him to see it. And I can't leave them in the park after school because they're shooting in the park. They say I feel like a prisoner in my own home. I feel like a stranger in my own city streets. And then over and over again, these letters end with some version of do something, do something. You've got to do something about it.
OK, now who's receiving these letters? That's the second big argument in the book, because the generation of people who are receiving these letters are the first generation of black elected officials to come into office in any number in this country since Reconstruction. And it's because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the 1970s and 1980s, we get an 800% increase in black elected officials nationwide. It's 800% increase over almost zero, but it's an 800% increase.
This is a generation, many of whom are from the South. Some of whom were in the Civil Rights movement with my parents. All of them remember the long history of under enforcement and under protection of the law, which has been a hallmark of African-American history since arrival on these shores as slaves.
I mean, my dad used to tell me about this. He grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi and Jim Crow South Side of Chicago. He used to say, we didn't call the police in our neighborhood, black neighborhood, if there was a crime. Jim Crow, they weren't going to come. The white police were not coming. And if they came, the only thing you could be sure of is they were going to make matters worse than they found it.
This generation of officials, they remember southern sheriffs in cahoots with the Klan. And I say Southern, but let's be clear, there's a Southern mentality that exists far outside of the South. Southern sheriffs in cahoots with the Klan, they said, they were asked about a homicide in a black neighborhood, they said, oh, that's not a homicide. That's another dead black person. And they didn't use the words black person.
They remember this history. They are shaped and formed by this history. Now, they are in office. They have some measure of control, especially over local police. And with that control, they are bound and determined to make the law and make the governmental apparatus respond to the letters of those citizens.
Remember, those citizen letters, those citizens wouldn't have bothered to write under Jim Crow. They would have known the government wasn't going to work for them. Now, with black elected officials in office for the first time in 100 years, they demand and expect a response. And some of these officials want to give it, which is why I say that some of the people that I'm writing about even had a racial justice motivation for doing things that I would argue are mistakes.
OK, so crime is rising and people are responding to it. They're asking for protection. There's people in local government, some of whom want to provide that protection.
But it still raises the question, OK, why police and prosecutors? Why is that the response that communities get? And here's where-- I told you all upfront that this is a book that's about black politics and African-American elected officials and citizens. But any book that focuses on black politics, necessarily also has to be a book about the larger American society and in particular the constraints and the limitations on what African-American local elected officials are able to do with the limited power that they have.
So let me mention a couple of those constraints and limitations. The first is historical. This generation of black elected officials has been elected to represent communities, that because of a history of racism starting in slavery, which we had in this country for longer than we have not-- we should never forget that-- followed by segregation and Jim Crow and white supremacy embedded into law and what that meant in those years. From basically, you know, 1619 to 1865 is slavery. And then you go up to Brown or the Civil Rights Act or whatever you want to call it in the late '50s, early '60s.
Because of a history of wealth discrimination, of redlining, of discriminatory provision of government benefits, the GI bill and other-- because of decisions by the federal government throughout almost any area of law that you can find or a policy that you can find, even surprising ones. The highways, where do they build highways? Eisenhower, 1950s, 1960s, the highway system that we all take for granted today, the interstate highway system, well, they had to be built somewhere.
Well, where were they put? In city after city after city, when choices had to be made about where they were put, they were put through the middle of black communities. Again, I'll just use it-- who's driven through Atlanta? Anybody? I know it's far. I'm far from Atlanta now.
All right, OK, if you've driven through Atlanta, you've driven on. I-75 or I-85. We're crazy, every time I go home, it's more lanes, like 12 lanes in each direction. You don't know it, and most people in Atlanta don't know it, but when you are on I-75 or I-85, you are driving through what was called the Black Wall Street, thriving middle class black neighborhood. The neighborhood that raised Dr. King destroyed by the federal highway system, because of discrimination in governmental policy.
So because of that combined history of hundreds of years of discrimination at every level, the neighborhoods that these black elected officials were elected to represent had been deprived of the resources that neighborhoods and communities need to be able to protect themselves. And so they were over-reliant on government, over-reliant on police and prosecutors for that protection. And police and prosecutors are not anybody's first-- it's not where you turn first for protection. It's where you go when you can't get protection from somewhere else.
So there's a historical discrimination, places, is one constraint. The next constraint is political discrimination. Now, the people that I'm writing about are local government officials. And one of my arguments in the book is that local politics matters more than we've given it credit for for how we got mass incarceration and how we need to respond to it. But it's also true that there are limitations to what local government can do. And you see those over and over again in the book.
Black elected officials over the last 50 years, I argue, had what I call an all of the above strategy to fighting crime and violence. They asked for more police and more prosecutors in many instances. And sometimes, unfortunately, they even asked for more prisons. But also, alongside those requests, they asked for more drug treatment and more money for housing and more money for education and more money for health care and more money for job training and more money for mental health care.
They were passing local government gun control laws in cities-- New York, Atlanta, DC, Chicago, wherever they could. They were asking for Congress to match those local laws, which they knew can only do so much with national gun control. They went to Congress for 50 years, and they asked for a Marshall Plan for urban America. They said do for us in black communities what you did for Europe after World War II-- rebuild, reinvest, revitalize. And for 50 years they had this all of the above strategy. And for 50 years they came back with money from Congress for one of the above-- law enforcement, police and prosecutors. So that's a political constraint.
The last constraint that I want to mention is-- and I mention this one last because it's a constraint that we still suffer from. We suffer from all of these, but this one we still suffer from to this day. This is a generation that was constrained by their imaginations, their imaginations in how to respond to what were real, pressing social problems. So again, there's lots of examples of this. But let me just give you one.
So there's a guy that I write about named David Clarke. You know I had told you all earlier that 11 out of 13 members of the first city council were African-American. There were two white members. David Clarke is one of them.
He had a very unusual biography. He went to Howard Law School in the 1960s. Then he clerked-- he clerked-- he worked for Martin Luther King. And then he becomes a lawyer for poor people. And then he gets elected to local government.
Now, the thing you should know about David Clarke for these purposes for tonight is that he was not a drug warrior. In fact, the first piece of legislation that he pushed for when he got into local government in 1975 was marijuana decriminalization. It didn't pass, came close, but didn't pass. But the point is, he's not a drug warrior.
OK, so now, it's the early 1980s. And I told you all about heroin in the '60s. And in the 1970s, at least in DC, it sort of kind of stepped back. And then in the '80s, you see an upsurge in overdose deaths, and you see an upsurge in citizen letters, demanding protection. And this time what they're asking about and writing about is heroin in particular. And the letters say things like-- I don't endorse this language, but this is the language they use-- there's junkies, and they're gathering on stoops. And they're nodding off on park benches. And they're gathering in alleys behind my home and place of business. They're leaving dirty syringes in the alleys and in the parks. And again, they end with some version of do something about this.
Now, David Clarke, the responsible elected official, takes these letters and he forwards them to the head of the relevant government agency. And he gets a letter back saying, Council Member Clarke, we've received your most recent batch of citizen complaints about heroin addicts, we're on the case. So that's good, good responsive local government.
But here's the thing. Who did he forward the letters to? Remember, the problem was addicts in public space. That's the stated problem. Did he forward the letters to the Department of Mental Health? Addiction services? Drug treatment? No.
He's not a drug warrior. He's a marijuana decriminalizer. But he is an American. And he fought them to the police chief. Because like so many people in this country, then and still, although we're working to liberate ourselves of this constraint, he couldn't imagine-- he lacked the imagination to think of another kind of response. He lacked the imagination to think of how you could respond to the problem of an addict in public space with something other than sending a person whose only tools are handcuffs and a gun and whose only place that they can send you for treatment where there is, of course, no such treatment, is the local jail.
And my argument, one of the key arguments in my book, is that when we try to understand how we got mass incarceration and also how to respond, that it is tempting-- and it is important to look at statements of president and acts of Congress and all of that for sure matters-- but it also matters and it's also essential, that we look across 50 states, across 3,000 counties over 50 years. We look at tiny decisions, often hidden, often invisible, often unpublicized decisions, like the decision by a local elected official of which government agency to enlist for help when he receives a complaint about heroin addicts in the park, that those tiny decisions are the individual bricks that collectively and over time have built the prison nation that America has become.
Now, when I was a student, and still to this day since I'm at a university, I will go to talks, but I noticed it most when I was a student. I'm a little more prepared for it now. I would go to talks, and I was always going to whatever the current social justice talk of the week was. And I would go to talks and people would talk about their area of interest and their area of passion. And they were talking about social problems. So by definition, they were talking about things that were bad.
And they would outline, sometimes in gripping detail and sometimes in boring detail, but they would outline their story, what they cared about, why they had been brought. And then after telling you how terrible it was, they would say thank you very much and they would walk off the stage. And I'm not going to do that, because I hated it then. And I'm not going to do it now.
So I want to spend the last few minutes-- and I hope we have more time to talk about this in the question and answer-- I want to talk about the last-- on the title it said the causes, consequences, and future. So I want to talk a little bit about the future. And specifically, I want to talk about this question of, OK, what do we do now? What do we do in response to the problem that I just described?
And some of the things that I'm going to tell you, a lot of the things, are very influenced by the diagnosis of the problem that I've given you. so I want us to think about this. I want us to focus on the fact that 88% of people who are incarcerated are in state, county, and local jails-- not federal. The federal government is not in charge of that 88%. And so I want us to understand the places where we should focus our political energy and our mobilization. I want us to know that 85% of law enforcement in this country is state, county, and local, not federal.
Let me say first in terms of thinking about how to respond at least for me, I often reflect on a conversation that I had with my mother. I was in high school. So I went to 10 schools for 12 grades. I do not recommend this to anybody. There's great things about having parents in the Civil Rights movement, really great things. And there are some not so great things. And one of the not so great things is we moved a lot. And the particular choices of schools were like kind of incidental to-- like they had other life things that they were focusing on, and we were just going to make it, you know, get by.
So I was in a new school in 10th grade. And it was a second or third day of school. And I was in the bathroom. And I saw a scene that I found very disturbing. I didn't really have the terms that I have now to describe what was happening. Basically, I saw a couple of kids bullying another kid. It wasn't physical, but it was verbal and it was emotional and it was severe enough that it made me kind of sick. And it was around sexual orientation and the way this kid who is the victim of the bullying was presenting himself.
And I went home at the end of the day and I sat down and talked to my mom about it. And my mom was one of these people who was always up in the school about like everything. And so I sat down with my mom and I told her the story about what I had just. And I had because I was properly raised by SNCC parents, I had ideas for what the principal could do in response to this issue and what teachers could do and how they could police the bathrooms differently. I had thoughts for what my mom could do. You know, she's going up about everything else. Why not go up about this?
And after I presented all of this, my mom listened very patiently and then she looked at me. And y'all probably know where she was going with this. I didn't at the time. But she looked at me, and she said, that's great, but I just have one question. What are you going to do? What are you going to do?
And I've taken that. Ever since then, it's something that I think very, very deeply about. And I want us all to try to think deeply about, which is that a problem like the one that I'm talking about, there's a lot that we should ask and demand of other people and of what they should do. But it's also important for us, each individually and then as communities that we are part of, ask the question, what am I going to do?
So a couple of ideas. Now, this first one, this might seem a little wacky, but really it's not, believe me. Serve on a jury. Now, most Americans get these notices in the mail. You know, you might not even-- you might think it's like a latest credit card announcement. It's not very shiny or appealing. And then when you open it up, it's even less appealing because it's people want you to come down and serve on a jury. And you have to be down there at 8:10. And then you're going to have to wait in line for half a day. And you might have to miss work, or you might have to miss class.
And if you're like most people, you dread getting this notice. And you either ignore it. Or you defer it and defer and defer it, so that maybe you move and you never have to serve in that community. Or-- and this is what I saw as a public defender-- you go down there and you figure out a way to get off the jury. Yeah, I know. I know how you all do.
So what I want to say is this. The people that come to a talk like this, we need you on the jury. The people that are critical, the people that are asking questions, the people that want to challenge government's evidence and don't reflectively believe the first witness or the police officer just because they're wearing a badge, we need you on the jury.
The historic fight for the right to vote in this country was right to vote in the ballot box and the right to vote on a jury box. It was understood as a fundamental political right, a way to influence government. But I can tell you as a public defender that I watched people who are the critics, who figure out ways to get off the jury. No, I can't judge. And, no, I can't be fair. No, I would never believe the police officer. And then they're just gone.
And guess what? Then we are left in America with juries full of people who have no questions asked about mass incarceration. And that's part of why we keep getting the mass incarceration that we have. So, please, got to be truthful, got to be honest. You got to answer the question, of course-- of course, of course, you have to do that. And you need to serve. You need to serve.
OK, I talked about-- I'm a law professor. I have to have a little, you know, law-y things, right to vote on the jury. Right to vote more generally and voting more generally. Now, I was just-- I mean, I know the statistics. Less than 50% of Americans vote in midterm elections. Young people, 30%, 35% of people voting. We all know those numbers.
But I just assumed that the politically active and the politically engage, the people that care about these issues were for sure voting. And just recently, I was at an event. I was at a rally at Yale. And there was a woman, and she was standing under a banner that said Abolish Prisons Now.
And I got to talking to her. And we were talking about what are you working on and abolition and how did you get to that point. And it was great conversation. And then somehow we got into a conversation about the fact that the deadline for registering to vote in Connecticut was that day.
And it was just on my head. I had seen something in newspaper. And I said, well, you're voting, right? And she said, nah, I don't think I'm going to vote.
And I didn't know if I wanted to cry. Or-- I just don't know. But look, y'all, OK, first of all, there's eight days left to register to vote in New York state. I just saw it in the-- what's it, the Ithaca Daily, what the daily newspaper called? Journal. I just saw it.
There's eight days left. If you're registered to vote somewhere other than New York-- who's registered to vote outside of New York? Keep your hands up. I'm talking about outside.
Now, of those, of you that are registered to vote outside of New York, how many people have gotten their absentee ballots so that you can vote? Keep your hands up. All right, if you-- all right, well, what are you going to say, you have another way of voting? Not absentee.
AUDIENCE: I'm going to get the ballot.
JAMES FORMAN: Going to get the ballot. This is what I want to say about this. Please, y'all, make a plan. Make a plan today. If you do nothing else-- in fact, as much as I want you to buy my book and give me a chance to sign it, as between right now going and leaving and getting online and figuring out how you're going to vote and buying my book, I want you to vote. I want you to figure out how to vote, because this is another thing that people get caught up on.
We get busy, and we forget to request the ballot. And then all of a sudden, it's the election day. And people are talking about voting. And you're like, oh, man, I'm not registered here. What am I going to do? So make the plan now.
And if you don't-- and I want to talk about a particular kind of election, especially-- I mean every election right now, every office is important. I was just talking to one of your students. Darnell Epps was just telling me about how right now the Senate Republicans, the state Senate Republicans in New York state are trying to change the law so that if you are denied parole, instead of being eligible to go see the parole board in two years, which is the current law-- and our parole system right now is terrible and unfair in all kinds of ways, but they're trying to make it even worse. They're trying to make it so then instead of two years, it will be five years before you can even see the parole board to plead your case. And all of these state Senate seats, these are closely contested elections. Some of these elections are decided by the number of people in this room.
Local prosecutor races is another kind of election that historically we didn't pay attention to, but people now are starting to pay attention to. And I would ask you to pay attention to it, because the local prosecutor is the most important single person-- the most powerful, single person anywhere in this system is the local prosecutor. All those 88% of the people who are 88% of the 2.3 million and really of the 7 million because it's under criminal justice supervision, not just in prison, 88% of those people are there because of a decision by a locally elected prosecutor at the county level.
For the last 40 years, all of those elections basically were people running on a campaign of I'm going to lock up more people than the person before me, I'm going to lock them up for longer, and I'm going to lock them up in worse conditions. And then a few years ago, about three years ago, an amazing thing happened, and it shocked many of us who've been studying this issue very, very closely, because I had written off local prosecutor elections. I just figured it was going to keep being-- I was constrained by my own imagination. I figured they were just going to keep being the way they had been.
But in November 2016, some good news out of that election-- stay with me-- was that all around the country, progressive minded people ran on campaigns of mass incarceration is a problem. People shouldn't be incarcerated just because they're poor. I'm going to stop asking for money bail. I want to decriminalize low level drug offenses. I'm opposed to the death penalty. I'm going to set up a conviction integrity unit to review all of the convictions in my office to make sure that there are no innocent people, that previous elected officials from my office put in prison.
They ran on these campaigns, which I would have thought were nonstarters. I would have thought this was like you just doing this to feel good, but you're not going to win, or to raise an issue, symbolic, which I support, but you're not going to win. And they won, y'all. They won in Florida. They won in Alabama. They won in Georgia. They won in Texas.
A guy in Texas, a career defense attorney with the words "not guilty" tattooed on his chest, seriously, I mean, I'm like hard core defense and I have no not guilty tattooed anywhere. He ran for local prosecutor against an incumbent, not an open seat, and won-- and won.
And then in Philadelphia, Larry Krasner won. Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rates of any big city in America in Philadelphia. And for 50 years, they've been electing black and white-- they've had black prosecutors and white prosecutors. The one thing they've had in common is they've all been about locking up more people for longer.
And then Larry Krasner said this is crazy. And he got together a coalition of people. And they actually went to the polls and they knocked on doors. And he won.
And now that he's been in office, he's done things like-- here's something they do in Philadelphia. Now this is amazing. He has told the line prosecutors in his office that when you ask for a term of prison-- he's identified how much it costs to lock somebody up in Pennsylvania-- and he says, if you are asking for a term of prison, first of all, you have to get my permission. Second of all, you need to explain to the judge why the $80,000 a year times 10, let's say, why the $800,000 a year that you are now asking the citizens of this state to pay is worth it and more justified than the alternatives.
A woman from Boston, Rachael Rollins, just won the Democratic primary, favored to win the general. Anybody from Boston? I saw there was like some Patriots hats and Red Sox, few Boston people. She's run on a campaign of-- she says, I'm not going to-- she has it on our website, there's 15 offenses that she just said we're not even prosecuting in my office. We don't even want to exercise our discretion because we don't believe that anybody should be prosecuted for these crimes.
So there is a movement afoot, and it's supported by citizens like people in this room that have said, you know what? What we've been doing for the last 50 years is morally wrong, where I come from, economically wrong, if that moves you, whatever are the pieces that bring you to this position. And we're starting to have an impact on elections. So please pay attention to these races.
When you go to these candidate forums or people come and speak, ask them what their position is. Again, for 50 years, people running for local prosecutor, they'll tell you-- I mean, Eric Holder used to say this all the time. He said the only people that I heard from were the people that were saying get the drug dealers off the corner. Now, whether that's true or not-- and I tend to believe him that he did mostly hear from people like that-- we have to change that dynamic. So it's not just go into the voting booth, though it is that, but it's also holding people accountable after they've been elected.
Let me mention one other area. And I'm just going to mention this because in a way I know I'm coming to the place which is in some way been a leader on this issue for so long that I'm probably not going to add that much new to the conversation on this point. But I want to mention it because if there's anybody in the room that hasn't started thinking about this question of prison education yet, I want to say that you are at ground zero for a whole set of opportunities that when I was in college, we did not have and that I think are absolutely transformative, both for you, as students, and for people who are incarcerated in the prisons or jails or juvenile facilities where you may be working.
So for me, you know, Peter said Professor Enns said that I'd started this alternative school from the juvenile justice system. So I've been thinking about this issue in terms of keeping people from entering the prison system. I've been thinking about that for a long time.
But a few years ago, I was giving one of these talks and I was telling people about what they could do, just like I'm doing today. And I've started to think about my mom's own question and my mom's own advice. And I thought, well, OK, writing and giving talks is part of what I do. But the biggest part of what I do is teaching, is going into the classroom and teaching. And what am I doing in that space to try to confront mass incarceration and change attitudes?
And so for me, my path was I got trained in a program called Inside Out, which is just one of many forms of prison education. And I'm not here about one form or the other. I'm big tent on this issue.
But for me, I got trained in this program. And what Inside Out does and what I've been doing is-- so Inside Out trains professors to teach the class that they would normally teach in their home university, but you teach it in a prison. And the classroom is made up of half people who are incarcerated and half people from your home university. And I know that you have things like that here.
And for me, the teaching has been transformative. I always tell my colleagues who are thinking about this, don't do this for self-interested reasons. But it is true that the best teaching evaluations I get in any class are in my Inside Out class. So if you need like a little bump up, it's a place you can look. But really the most meaningful ones are from the incarcerated students.
I teach one semester in a men's prison, one semester in a women's prison. This semester was at the men's prison. And at the end of the class-- it was a class on-- it was basically the same class, "Race, Class, and Punishment," that I normally teach at Yale. I had to change the name for the prison. The content of the curriculum was fine. But so I changed the name to it "Inside Out, Issues in Criminal Justice." So that was the class.
And at the end of it, he said, I liked the law and the policy that we learned in this class, but really what I liked was that when I entered the library where we had our class, when I entered the seminar room and I got prepared to enter the seminar circle, I knew that I was entering a space where I was being treated like I had something to say, where I was being treated like I was smart, and I was treated like, and on some days, I even felt like an intellectual. And those of you that have been teaching and working in prisons, undoubtedly have had this experience and a similar set of experiences.
If you need to have this work validated in other ways, the Rand Corporation has studied the issue, found for every dollar that we invest in prisons, we as a society get $5 in return. That return mostly comes from the fact that recidivism rates go down for people who get educated and employment rates go up.
The next phase of this-- and I know again that you're a leader on this issue, and in a lot of states like Connecticut, we're working to do what y'all already are doing here. But the next stage of this work I think is moving from individual classes to making sure that all of the classes are connected in a way so that people are getting college credit and working towards a degree and earning a degree while they're incarcerated or after they've gotten out of being incarcerated. And so I would ask you all if you haven't touched some of the prison education work-- and there are so many people who are doing it and there's so many different forms of it here that I won't even try to rattle them all off-- but if you haven't touched it in some way, please do it, because your life will be changed.
The last thing I'm going to say before we get to conversation is not a particular, it's not voting, it's not jury service, it's not education. It's a way of thinking about the issue, I guess, more broadly and way of thinking about social change in challenging times more broadly. And I told you about a conversation I had with my mom earlier. So this is a conversation I had with my dad. It was before he passed away. And we just watched a movie about the Civil Rights movement.
And he was there. And I asked him, what do you think? What did you think of the film? And he said he liked it. He said I liked it. I liked that they presented this history in film, because more people watch films than read books, which is something that I probably should have I thought about before deciding to write a book, but he said, what I did like about it, he said I liked that-- or sorry, what he liked about it was that what he didn't like about it was he said I didn't like that they made it seem like everybody was in the movement. And he said that wasn't true. We were unpopular. We were lonely.
And so this part of the message, this is for those of you all that are activists and those of you that are calling meetings and six people show up and there's like 6,000 people at the game, and you're like, wait, why are there six people at my meeting and everybody is going to the game. And then you call the next event, and there's six people, but it's the same six people.
My dad, what he was talking about and what he started to talk about with me was, you know, he pointed out the fact that Martin Luther King was on constant loop now, Black History Month, but he was unpopular when he died, 2/3 unfavorable ratings from the Gallup poll. My dad pointed out to me that the March on Washington, again on continuous loop, Coca-Cola ads during Black History Month, the March on Washington was unpopular before it happened. People were asked, did they think it was going to help the cause of black people in this country? And 60% of the people said no.
The point that my dad was making was that when you're facing and confronting an injustice that seems so profound and seems so insurmountable and seems so indestructible, that people are going to tell you that your efforts to change it are impossible. But if you ignore them, when you defeat it, the same people who told you it was impossible are going to turn around and say, oh, yeah, that was inevitable. I knew that was going to happen. That was easy. And then they're going to make a movie about it. There were 250,000 people on the March on Washington in '63, which is amazing. But a decade later, 10 million people would say they were there.
So I don't know what I don't know the specific idea or the specific proposal or the specific group of people or coalition of people in this room, I don't know what it is. But I know that it's here. I know that it's in the audience. SNCC was started on a college campus. I know that there's an idea in this room that's boulder, that's more impactful, that's more transformative, that's less constrained by a limited imagination than anything that I've said.
And what I can say is this is that if you ignore the people that tell you that change is impossible and you pursue that idea and you pursue that idea in collaboration and in community and with allies and you pursue that idea fearlessly that you are going to take down mass incarceration the way previous generations took down Jim Crow and previous generations took down slavery, you are going to replace it with a justice system that actually deserves to be called a justice system, that protects communities and protects people and is restorative and doesn't cause this untold damage that the current system does.
And when you do that, they will make a movie about you. And I will be there, with your professors, with Professor Enns, with Professor Kohler-Housemann, with all of the people that have been working on this project for the last three years. We will be there in the front row with popcorn in hand, cheering. Thank you.
So there is about 15 minutes for questions. I know some folks have to go. But if you're want to stay and ask questions, there are a couple of microphones here on either side. Hi.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for coming today.
JAMES FORMAN: Yes, thank you for coming.
AUDIENCE: What are your thoughts and what can we do to overcome the Mitch McConnells and the obvious ignoring of our laws and our social mores for the recent nomination for the Supreme Court and the obvious games that are being played with the rules and the ignoring of laws? Because if people of color acted like that in a courtroom, according to the AADA from New York, formerly, that they would be in jail right now. Can you hear me now?
JAMES FORMAN: Yes. I just missed the last part. So I want to make sure everyone can hear. What do we do about the Mitch McConnells and the people that are manipulating and playing with the rules, as we've seen in the news today and this week, because--
AUDIENCE: Because if other people of color--
JAMES FORMAN: Yes.
AUDIENCE: I fully realize this and this is the injustice that I see going on. What do we do about that? Because it's like a constant march. And they are marching over the civil rights and the people that consider this important.
JAMES FORMAN: Yes. Look, I mean, it was almost-- I mean, the last week, week and a half, has been infuriating and demoralizing and eye opening on many, many fronts, so not only the one that I'm about to mention, but one of the things that it is highlighted is how we have a president who takes out a full page ad in The New York Times asking for the death penalty for black teenagers in New York City who are later found to be innocent and who still yet to this day have not received an apology from the person who asked for the death penalty. And indeed, he still maintains, despite clear evidence to the contrary as found by courts and prosecutors, that they're guilty. How that happens and then when a white man with privilege is accused of doing something as a teenager, this same group is talking-- for the first time in, I believe, their lifetimes talking about presumption of innocence and due process of law and we can't rush to judgment.
And again I want to be clear. That isn't the only disgusting thing that this moment has revealed, but it is one of them. And so then the question is, OK, so what do we do about that? In my mind, and again, this is what I said before, what I'm about to say is by definition constrained by my imagination. And so ideas that you have in response to that are going to be as good or better.
The moves that I have that I can think of are protest politics and electoral politics-- voting and protest, voting and protest, voting and protest, over and over and over again. And I don't think in my opinion, although those ideas aren't new, we don't act on them. Again, we still have 30%, 40%, 45% participation rates in elections. And so in my mind, until we actually-- and I want to be clear-- in the same way that people put up barriers to jury service, people are putting up barriers to voting. There's no question about that. That's part of what's happening without a doubt.
But most political scientists estimate that-- the voter participation rates are described, 2% or 3% have been influenced by those restrictions. So that's real, because 2% or 3% can make a difference in an election. But it also is not insurmountable in the sense that we can still get enough people to the polls to, not in every case, but in a number of these jurisdictions, vote people out.
And until elections-- because I don't think the whole story is elections-- that's where the protest piece comes in. I do think that the protest movements of the last couple of years, most, I guess, famously and notably, I'm starting with the Women's March after the inauguration. I think those have had a very energizing effect. Many of the offices that I'm talking about, the people that I just mentioned have been elected were elected after those marches and were elected in part because of a kind of a mobilization and a kind of energy. So in my mind, that's one of the ways in which protest and elections work together. So that's what I got. Thank you.
JAMES FORMAN: Hello.
AUDIENCE: I'm Phoebe. Thanks for coming. And I'm glad that I came. I'm concerned also. I'm from the community. And I'm looking around for community members to be a part of this. And I heard of quite a few things that you said that we can do. But you didn't talk about grassroots organizations that are doing this work with answers without letters behind their name. That's very important, right?
I work for Alliance of Families for Justice-- I don't know if you know her-- with Soffiyah Elijah. But I think it's real important. So you've all been working on bringing you here for three years, right? Is that what I heard? One year?
JAMES FORMAN: Well, this project has gone on for three years. I'm not so hard to get. It doesn't take three years to get me.
AUDIENCE: So I want to know if you come back, how could we get you to come down into the community and speak with some of the organizations that are doing this work on the ground? Because I think it's important. What I also think is very important is that Cornell begin to work closely with communities that are doing this work. And there are some that come down. There are some students that come down and work in a multicultural resource center. We're getting ready to do a really big conference, free of charge, how mass incarceration affects communities and families. So we're really working really hard in the community.
Also, I just wanted to mention when you talked about the group of blacks who got elected in and after this real great thing, what we didn't talk about, they wasn't de-colonized yet. They are still thinking like the system that they are under. Right? So when we talk about having more conversations, we're still not talking about root causes. Like it's amazing to hear you share and talk about the Civil Rights Movement, your mom, your dad. But how do we get into communities who-- it's real nice to tell this group of people we need you to vote.
But how do we get to the communities who feel like I've been voting forever? What's changed for me? Because it sounds good to talk about we changed this and we changed that. Some of us still feel enslaved. And I don't know, I don't want to be Debbie Downer, because one thing I do understand is you young people are the ones who really have created a lot of change. But what I want to just say is that I wanted to hear from you about how do you work with grassroots people in your Washington community who have answers? I don't have a degree. I do. I have a master's in streetology. That's all I wanted to impart, how it is important for us to work together.
JAMES FORMAN: Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. Before you move away from the mic, because, of course, one of things is I'm not from here. So could you just mention-- because I think you're exactly right and I'll respond to your question-- but before I let you go, could you mention to the audience the names of the couple of organizations that are doing work in this community that you believe are the most effective and where you would like to see more people who are in this room right now connected with? Give people the names of a couple of organizations just so that somebody who's moved by your comment will be able to follow up.
AUDIENCE: I can also invite you all to our conference-- free of charge.
JAMES FORMAN: When is it?
AUDIENCE: Two days. It's October 19th and 20th. The keynote speaker will be at Green Star space. And then Saturday, there'll be multiple panels. So this is with the Alliance of Families for Justice. I'm the Central Regional coordinator. The main offices in New York City. We started two years ago and built up a really dynamic-- so what people don't talk much about-- I could have done this talk for you, but what people--
JAMES FORMAN: Exactly--
AUDIENCE: Don't talk much about is the families who are affected by having loved ones incarcerated. So we've got a lot going on with that. We have URO, Ultimate Reentry Opportunity out of CCE with Ty Lee. We have OAR. I know people know a lot about those organization. OAR, we have quite a few different organizations. I work out of the office of the Multicultural Resource Center, which is an open space. And we invite you all down any time just to come hang out and have a conversation. I'm sorry.
JAMES FORMAN: No. Thank you for that. And if you don't mind, if you have an extra copy, when we finish here, because I'm going to go out and I can put that-- because not everybody can see it now-- but I can put it next to me on the book signing table and anybody that comes by will be able to see that and get the dates and the phone numbers and any information they need for how to come to that.
AUDIENCE: And what's really inspiring, and Rihannan is here, and I heard all of this, because we are-- we're going to have a noon luncheon for educators to come in and begin a conversation on some of these books that I see-- how do we help children in school who have loved ones incarcerated. Well, anyway.
JAMES FORMAN: Thank you. So thank you for raising that. Just following up real quickly, one little kind of plug on the educator. So I talked to a lot of educators that are interested in knowing kind of how they can broaden out their curriculum to cover more of these issues, cover race and class and the criminal legal system. And so I took that charge, and I created a teacher's guide with some teachers to my book that's broader than my book.
It sort of uses it as a jumping off point. But it brings in a lot of poetry and other literature and hip hop. And that guide is going to be available in about a week or two on my website, which is jamesformanjr.com. So anybody who's looking for resources can look there.
And then to respond to your direct question-- so I agree with you absolutely that one of the challenges in any university community is figuring out ways to break down the walls and break down the barriers and flatten out the hills that separate universities from the communities that they're a part of. That is ongoing. I mean, I come from a university which has this problem historically. And to this day that it's built into the architecture. You go to Yale and there's all these buildings and gates. And then all the activity happens inside the gates. So it's like people are being walled off.
So it's absolutely real. And the only thing that individuals can do in response to that is to try to take you up on offers like the one you just made to go attend events like the one you described. And then what universities as institutions can do is try to self-consciously and self-reflectively think about how they can break down some of those barriers in the same way that the prison education programs are trying to break down barriers that separate people who are incarcerated from people who are on the outside.
And so I in my own-- and you said, well, what do I do? So I live in New Haven, Connecticut now. And I do a ton of work, I mean, just on Sunday, I spent half the day at an event at a local church that was full of community activists that didn't have anybody from the university talking about my book and talking about all of these issues and helping to generate a community-wide conversation that at least in this group ended up focusing on the two big issues that this church came together to talk about and act on were voter mobilization in the upcoming elections and jobs, and how can you connect people, whether they're people coming out of the prison system or young people who could go either way. How do we do more to connect them to increase the number of jobs that are available to them and then to connect them and support them in getting and holding and maintaining those jobs?
So those kind of conversations are going to have to be local. That's the outcome we came to in this space, in this church, in this block of New Haven. The answer is going to be different in different places. But I couldn't agree with you more that the conversation and the energy and the activism have to happen. I think-- yeah, yeah-- I think you were there first. And then I think we'll do these two questions. And I think that'll be the last two just in respect of everybody's time. And then I'll promise to try to keep my answers shorter.
AUDIENCE: OK. Thank you so much for coming. I actually had two questions, so I might have to just ask one of them. They're both a little controversial, but I felt that I needed to hear what you had to say about it.
JAMES FORMAN: Do you mind just turning the mic a little closer--
AUDIENCE: Closer to--
JAMES FORMAN: Yes, so that-- I can hear you, but I want to make sure everybody else can hear you.
AUDIENCE: OK, sorry about that. I have a softer voice. So my question revolves around what people have been-- there's some conversation more recently that I'm reading about that people are noticing that there's a little bit too much teaching going on from the black community to white America. And I like that I'm following your question and your comments about local community work and what has been going on there. But people are noticing that at the national level, at the level where the information gets disseminated quicker, more easily via television, an example is Dear White People, a show, that we tend to focus a lot of these efforts on teaching white America and that we can afford to ramp up that effort, that energy, to invest in the community itself.
So a lot of the information that's being sent out, a lot of the black community, for example, can watch the shows. And then they'll tell you, yes, I know about this already. I've experienced it. But I need the conversations to move a step further. So that my question is recently to hear your perspective on this idea. And since you have gone to multiple conferences and the way that you approach certain topics, who your audience is, what are your thoughts on how much of that energy that we're spending in that direction and do you find that it's true? And should we try to focus our efforts a little bit differently to be more effective?
JAMES FORMAN: Thank you. Now just so I know for clarification, are you asking whether instead of kind of black people talking to white people to educate them, are you saying, if we don't do that, are you asking for more of kind of black people talking to other black people? Or are you saying that it should be white people who should be taking more of the lead in talking to other white people? I can't figure out what that-- I get this sort of their critique. But I'm trying to figure out-- so which solution are you thinking we should go towards if we were to be persuaded by that critique?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, good question, because that's the question I have for you, because that's the criticism-- no, no, no--
JAMES FORMAN: You should be a law professor.
AUDIENCE: With all respect. No, seriously, because it's something that's come up. And a lot of these conversations happen, and I can't find-- I can't be on the extreme, because I see both necessities. I see the need to educate, and I also see the need to spend that energy within the community. So I would just like to hear a perspective. Based on your position and your experience and you've been to multiple conferences and spoken to multiple groups of people, do you find that at your level of experience that we have been spending that much energy doing the educating part and that we could spend more time doing the like self-reflection within the community? Because you spoke about there are broken pieces within the black community that needs to be worked on that we're not spending enough time working on within ourselves.
But rather we're spending time trying to educate other people about their struggle. Meanwhile, we educate and then we go home. And we still don't know how to deal with the broken pieces. So I'm just trying to see that based on your perspective, do you see that we have been doing that and we need to refocus?
JAMES FORMAN: OK, let me do this. I'm going to get the other question on the table. And then I'll respond to both just to make sure that we kind of respect y'all's time. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Briefly, in your book, you wrote about the distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes being arbitrary. And you were critical of President Obama and Attorney General Holder and how they distinguish between violent and nonviolent crimes.
JAMES FORMAN: Yes.
AUDIENCE: In your presentation, you spoke about the future. So can you speak--
JAMES FORMAN: About what?
AUDIENCE: The future. So can you comment briefly on your vision for the future prosecution of violent crimes?
JAMES FORMAN: Yeah, OK, so I was hoping that the questions might have [LAUGHTER] some overlap, which they didn't it. And, of course, they're both super, like meaty questions. I've devoted-- as you know, the whole epilogue of the book is devoted to this question of violence, nonviolence. So I'll do that first. And then I'll go back to yours.
So I don't think it's arbitrary. I don't think the distinction between violence and nonviolence is arbitrary. I mean, there are particular kinds of cases, where you might say it's arbitrary which side of the line it falls on. But I think that people perceive being victimized by a violent crime in a very particular and real way. And I don't think that that harm-- I don't think it's an arbitrary distinction to just distinguish that from a nonviolent offense.
I think, having said that, I've been writing since at least since 2002 about sort of criticizing reform efforts that focus our attention overwhelmingly or even disproportionately on this category of nonviolent drug offenses, pointing out that while the critique of the war on drugs is absolutely valid and urgent, it is 20% to 25% of people in our prisons are there for drug offenses. And I'm glad to say that there's an increasing, I feel, like consensus around that point, at least in the academic community.
Now moving that into practice and moving it into policy and politics is much harder. And so I guess my broad level solution that I would say is that I think we have to talk about individuals, and we have to talk about individual cases, and we have to talk about individual stories, because I think when we tell individual stories, it's very different from the label violent versus nonviolence. As soon as I lead with the label, then people's minds immediately fill up with the worst possible crime they can possibly imagine.
And what people fail to recognize is that kind of crime that they're thinking about is a tiny percentage, not just of the prison system, but of the violent offenses. Violent offenses, the most common violent offense of people in our prisons is robbery, which is a serious crime. But it's not the quadruple homicide and forcible rape that has come to mind when you've said violent offenders. So the first thing is I want to just move beyond labels and talk about actual cases and actual stories, which is why I focus that chapter around a story.
And the reason I know that the stories are so powerful is that when you talk-- is actually President Obama. And I mentioned this in the epilogue. But President Obama in one breath would say that I'm not sympathetic to violent offenders or violent crime, and then he would say that his favorite television show was The Wire and that he loved the characters in The Wire. Well, there's nobody nonviolent in The Wire. Like even Bubbles, the heroin-- like even he commits a violent crime.
But President Obama doesn't think of them as violent offenders. They're not violent offenders. They're people whose stories you know, whose families you learn about, whose life circumstances you appreciate, whose constraints you can empathize with, who committed an act of violence. That's a very, very different thing than violent offender. Where do you stand on violent offenders? And so that's how I think about the issue. And that's how I think we're going to have to talk about the issue going forward.
I don't know how to think about-- I don't know that I have a universal answer to your very, very important question. I know this. When I wrote this book, I thought that some black people would read it. And I didn't have any-- and I knew at least one white person would read it, because I knew my mom would read it. But I didn't think that it would have brought much broader audience, only in part because we don't have a history of books that are full of black characters. There's not a deep history of books like that having an audience outside of the African-American community.
So I thought that broader America might just sort of dismiss it and not put it on the radar screen. I'm happy to say I was wrong about that. But I don't know about this question. I mean, this isn't really fully an answer to your question. But I know that I love speaking to black audiences. And that might just be personal. It may be because that's who I had in mind. It may be because I grew up in Atlanta and I spent my professional life in DC, which are the two cities in this country with the largest sort of black majority cities, big cities. Maybe it's because I like audiences that are vocal and responsive. And black audiences are more often that.
And maybe it's because I have a little bit of a sense of your question. I have a little bit of alignment with the concern that you raised. And I do think, which I asked-- I was asking you if you thought about this-- I do think that it is essential that non-black-- and so I'm not just going to say white, because we've been talking about black and white, but it's obviously a much broader spectrum than that-- but I do think that non-black audiences who care about racial justice work and care about mass incarceration in particular should push themselves to think about where they want to situate their work and their struggle.
I was having a conversation with a woman, terrific advocate, young woman recently out of college, white woman. And it was very open ended. And she was just sort of wrestling with like what am I going to do next? I care about mass incarceration, I want to work in community. Those are the two things. She cared about mass incarceration. She had been in a foundation, but she wanted to work more on the ground, like in community, in local politics or advocacy locally. And she was from suburban Connecticut.
The legislators who block most of reform proposals right now in Connecticut are from communities like the community that she grew up. And the people who are most supportive of those efforts and least supportive of the reform movement are from her community-- white, middle class, mostly Republican, bedroom communities in Connecticut. And I argue that she should go work there. She needed to persuade her neighbors.
She went to New Orleans to work in the black community in New Orleans. And I get-- and I don't want to say that in a dismissive way at all, because the work that she's going to go do is important and it's powerful and it's profound. But I do think that at least some portion, not everybody, but some portion of the people-- and when I pressed her on it, she admitted and I do believe this is true more often than we admit, that it was a little bit more comfortable for her to go to New Orleans than to go to where she was from, because if she went where she was from, she had to confront the fact that a lot of the people that were sustaining mass incarceration were her friends and neighbors and people that she thought of as good people. And in Louisiana, it was a little easier, because she could be like, well, there's some racist, Jim Crow old Confederate people.
So I think that this is an important conversation that I think we're just now beginning to have. But I want more people like the student that I was talking to go to where they're from and convince those folks. Thank you.
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ISS Mass Incarceration Project's Capstone Lecture on Oct. 4, 2018 featured James Forman, Jr. discussing his book, 'Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.' Sponsored by the Institute for Social Sciences and the Center for the Study of Inequality.