Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549
The premise of Locking Up Our Own, by James Forman Jr., is that black people are wholly involved in sending other black people—predominantly black men—to jail and prison. The problem of incarceration in the African American community, which increased with public policy reform in the 1970s, isn't just a result of a predominantly white law enforcement and judicial system, Forman argues. It stems from a need to handle community-wide problems of violence, drugs, unemployment, and poverty.
In Locking Up Our Own, Forman examines how the do-good policies of the church, the practices of the police force, and the influences of the media conspire with public (e.g., housing, school, community) policies to create an environment conducive to arresting black men. He focuses on specific communities where African Americans dominate, particularly Washington, DC.
The seed for today's mass incarceration began with attempts to solve the problems of gun violence and drug dealing within African American communities. Widespread violence made communities unsafe for children; drug dealing led to an eroded economy and a feedback cycle of unemployment, particularly for men in African American communities.
But when communities attempted to legislate and pass laws to control violence, the solution (incarceration) became the problem. Incarceration rates for black men skyrocketed once leaders in the African American community began ensuring that criminals would be locked up; once incarcerated, getting back to a "normal" life in the community was difficult, so the cycle of incarceration led not only to recidivism but also to generations of black men serving time.
Leaders in the black community, frustrated with crime and disappointed with many of the idealistic social programs of the last 1960s and early 1970s (like subsidized housing, or busing for school integration) kept pushing for hard-line law enforcement. Elected officials ran on platforms of crime control.
Curtailing violence and ridding neighborhoods of drugs were policies that were popular in all sectors of the community, a sensible reaction to the realities of life for many African Americans. But local anti-crime policies led to increasing incarceration, and these worsened in the 1970s, with Nixon's war on drugs; in the 1980s, with Reagan's "Just Say No" to drugs campaign colliding with increased use in crack cocaine; and in the 1990s, with Bill Clinton's era of conservative democratic leadership which spearheaded "welfare to work" legislation.
In the 1990s, the mass incarceration movement took on a life of its own when the "three strikes" law went into effect, disproportionately affecting African American men, since multiple, minor offenses could result in lifetime prison terms.
Locking Up Our Own focuses on the community of Washington, DC, a predominantly African American city, and how the DC jurisdiction handled public policy, law enforcement, and sentencing from the early 1970s to present day. The focus on the judicial system shows the absurdities public defenders face when they have few official options to help clients get out of the cycle of incarceration. The jail reform movement currently gaining traction in the United States is a response to much of what Forman discusses in this book. Even as public policy heroes on the national level (like Barack Obama) have tried to steer a new course to fix mass incarceration in the United States, the entrenched policies and beliefs within African American communities are difficult to dismantle.