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How America Became ‘the World’s Largest Jailer’ James Forman Jr. traces the rise of 'warrior policing' in a UCLA Luskin Lecture centering on his Pulitzer-winning book

By Mary Braswell

For more than three decades, the United States has imprisoned its people at a higher rate than any other nation, so Yale University law professor James Forman Jr. understands how individuals might feel powerless to change that reality.

“When we look at something as awful as the largest prison system in the world, it can be easy to think about it as somebody else’s problem to solve,” Forman said during a Nov. 7 UCLA Luskin Lecture at the California African American Museum. “But we all have to think about what we can do individually and then collectively in response.”

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, former public defender and co-founder of an alternative school for incarcerated youth shared insights into the complicated evolution of U.S. criminal justice over the last half-century. Key turning points came in the 1960s and 1980s, when heroin and crack epidemics devastated communities of color and led to an era of “warrior policing,” he said.

Forman urged the audience to take tangible steps to turn the tide. Vote. Don’t skip out on jury duty. Find the time and energy to work for a cause close to your heart.

His appearance as part of the Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series wove historical research with stories of his childhood as the son of civil rights pioneers, an interracial couple at a time when such marriages were illegal in much of the country.

“The notion that we would be critical or skeptical of government authority that was purporting to act in the name of public safety but was actually harming people is something that I just grew up on,” Forman said.

He has spent much of his career investigating how the United States “earned the dishonor of being the world’s largest jailer.” Part of the answer, he found, lies in grave missteps by African American leaders with the best of intentions — the subject of his acclaimed 2017 book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

Forman found that African Americans who came to power during the drug wars of decades past did not have adequate resources to protect their communities and became over-reliant on police, prosecutors and aggressive tactics.

“We were passing the same laws, the same stop-and-frisk, the same mandatory minimums, the same school-to-prison pipeline. And we were getting the same results,” he said.

Then and now, actions of officials at the local level have enduring consequences, he said.

“It’s crucial that we look at the small steps, the hidden steps, the often invisible steps, some of them made by well-intentioned people,” he said. “Those individual decisions are the bricks that collectively have built the prison nation that America has become.”

Mass incarceration is fundamentally a local issue, Forman said, noting that 88 percent of prisoners in the country are in state, county and local prisons and jails.

“California and Texas together, just two states, have more people incarcerated than the entire federal government,” he said. “Los Angeles County all by itself is responsible for one-third of the people who are incarcerated in the state of California.

“So where we sit right now, this is ground zero in the fight against mass incarceration because this is one of the most incarcerated counties in one of the most incarcerated states in the most incarcerated country in the world. So we have some work to do right here in Los Angeles.”

Forman called on the audience to turn out for March elections for Los Angeles County district attorney, pointing to a trend he has seen over the last five years: In city after city, a new generation of progressive prosecutors has been voted into office, he said.

And he urged those present to understand their own power to bring about change. “For most of us we need to start where we live, we need to start with what we love,” he said.

For Forman, that means eradicating the “education deserts” found inside the criminal justice system. In 1997, he helped launch the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, which is now housed inside Washington, D.C.,’s juvenile prison. More recently, he has offered a seminar in which 10 law students and 10 Connecticut inmates come together behind prison walls to study criminal justice, part of a program called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange.

His “outside students” from Yale and Quinnipiac universities are exposed to a corrections system they might never otherwise see. The benefits for “inside students” are borne out by research showing that recidivism goes down and employment goes up — and by their own testimonials.

One of Forman’s incarcerated students told him he valued the “feeling of mattering.”

The student, he recounted, said, “I liked the law and the policy that we learned in this class, I did. … But really what I liked most of all was that every week when I came to class and I entered the seminar circle, I knew that I was entering a space where I was treated like I was smart, where I was treated like I had something to say.”  

Forman urged the Luskin Lecture audience to embrace their own ideas for creating “a justice system that deserves to have the word justice in the title.” By doing so, he said, “You will create a system that protects and heals and reforms and mends communities, without all this toxicity and brutality of our current system.”

Forman shared the stage with Michael Lens, assistant professor of public policy and urban planning, who led a conversation after the talk, and Professor Máximo Langer of UCLA Law, who offered closing comments. Langer is faculty director of the UCLA Criminal Justice Program, which co-sponsored the Luskin Lecture along with the university’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura welcomed the evening’s guests, noting that the Exposition Park venue was chosen to “get us out in the community, to address questions, issues, thoughts, ideas that are important considerations in matters of public concern … so that we might learn from one another.”

View photos from Forman’s lecture on Flickr.

UCLA Luskin Lecture Series: James Forman Jr.

Social Workers Key to New Era of Juvenile Justice, Abrams Says

Professor of social welfare Laura Abrams was featured in a Social Work Today article about the role of social work in the U.S. juvenile justice system. Over the last half-century, the U.S. has favored a system of punishment that made it easier for juveniles to be treated as adults. But Abrams sees a new era unfolding with a wave of 21st century reforms that prioritize the protection of children’s rights and support for youth and families. “Social workers should care about juvenile justice reform because we need to restore our rightful place with youth who have been in contact with the law,” she said. She encouraged social workers to stay informed about the issues, become aware of local initiatives and connect with advocacy groups to advance the cause of juvenile justice reform. “We can’t consider [reform] done, even though a lot of progress has been made,” Abrams said.


Leap on Restrictive Parole Policies for Gang Members

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap was featured in a New York Times article about the restrictive parole system that makes it difficult for individuals with a history of gang involvement to ever clear their names. Kerry Lathan, who was shot in the back while picking up a T-shirt from Nipsey Hussle’s store the day the rap artist was killed, was later arrested for violating parole by associating with a known gang member. Hailed as a community icon who had turned his life around and worked with police to reduce gang violence, Hussle was still listed on CalGang, the California database of gang members. Leap said, “If someone like Nipsey Hussle is viewed as always a gang member, what is happening to the average guy who has a low-level job, who’s trying to make it, and that’s his past?” Leap concluded, “No one ever makes it off that list. No one.”


Abrams Publishes Research on Child Incarceration, Adult Health

Professor Laura Abrams, chair of Social Welfare, recently co-authored an article in Academic Pediatrics investigating the relationship between child incarceration and subsequent adult health outcomes. The United States is the world leader in youth incarceration, and research by Abrams and co-principal investigator Elizabeth Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, aimed to bridge the data gap on repercussions from child incarceration. The study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health to compare adult health outcomes in individuals grouped by age of first incarceration. The study compared individuals first incarcerated before age 14 with those first incarcerated at 15-17 years old, 18-20 years old and 21-24 years old. Among the adult health outcomes analyzed were physical health, such as mobility limitations, and mental health, including depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. After controlling for sociodemographic and ecological factors, the study found that “child incarceration independently predicted adult mobility limitations, adult depression and adult suicidal thoughts,” confirming the link between younger age at first incarceration and worse adult health. The research also identified sociodemographic disparities in child incarceration, finding that “individuals first incarcerated as children were disproportionately of color, more likely to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and more likely to have been raised in a single-parent household.” The findings will likely have repercussions in the health arena. The report concluded, “Child incarceration displays even wider sociodemographic disparities than incarceration generally and is associated with even worse adult physical and mental health outcomes.”


Bill to Deem Children Under 12 Too Young for Court Is Backed by Abrams’ Research

Research by Professor Laura Abrams of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare is mentioned in a story that originated with the Chronicle of Social Change and has been picked up by other media outlets, including the Appeal and the Press-Telegram. Senate Bill (SB) 439 would prevent the juvenile justice system from hearing most cases of children younger than age 12. “I think people have an assumption that juvenile court is potentially a helpful intervention for young children,” Abrams says in the story, which notes her analysis of state juvenile justice data. “But in most cases, the charges aren’t sustained or they’re dismissed, so the family doesn’t get any help at all.”


 

Early Childhood Incarceration Linked to High Rates of Physical, Mental Health Issues Half of those admitted to juvenile justice facilities before their teen years reported suicidal thoughts as adults

By Ryan Hatoum

Elizabeth Barnert, left, and Laura Abrams. Photo by George Foulsham

When children are placed in juvenile detention centers, jails or prisons before their teenage years, they are much more likely to experience serious physical and mental health issues as adults, according to a new study by UCLA researchers.

The UCLA researchers reported that more than 21 percent of people who had been incarcerated as children reported poor general health in adulthood, compared with 13 percent for those incarcerated later in life and 8 percent for those never incarcerated. The study appears in the International Journal of Prisoner Health.

“Those at risk for imprisonment during childhood need special attention from the health care sector,” said Elizabeth Barnert, principal investigator of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “The rates of poor health outcomes among people who’ve been incarcerated tell us there’s a huge need for us to take better care of them — both as kids and as adults.”

There has been a growing international movement to find alternatives to juvenile incarceration — or the detainment of minors in juvenile halls, probation camps and other juvenile justice facilities — for the youngest offenders. Many countries are raising the minimum age at which adolescents can be incarcerated and are deferring children to other programs for rehabilitation.

Researchers from the Geffen School, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital analyzed data from 14,689 adult participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Their analysis considered three groups: adults who had been incarcerated during the ages of 7 to 13; adults who had been incarcerated during the ages of 14 to 32; and adults who had never been incarcerated.

“From the data we have available, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why those who enter the juvenile justice system at a young age face greater health challenges,” said Laura Abrams, also a principal investigator of the study and a professor and chair of Social Welfare at the Luskin School. “It’s likely a combination of trauma, which can lead to troubled behavior and long-term health problems, and the lasting effects of the conditions of early imprisonment.”

A key study finding were the differences among the groups’ mental health symptoms. Thirty-eight percent of the people who had been incarcerated before age 14 experienced symptoms of depression in adulthood, contrasted with 24 percent of those who were incarcerated at age 14 to 32 and 15 percent of the never-incarcerated group.

In other findings, more than one in four of those incarcerated before age 14 reported suicidal thoughts as adults, contrasted with about one in 10 of the group incarcerated at later ages and one in 15 of the group who had never been incarcerated.

Among the respondents who had been incarcerated at the youngest ages — seven to 12 — the rate was even higher; half experienced suicidal thoughts and ideation in adulthood.

“Incarceration has human costs at all ages, but with children, it’s particularly problematic,” Abrams said. “Children need spaces to grow and thrive — not to be confined in jail-like settings.”

While this new analysis does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between early incarceration and poor health later in life, mounting research gives experts a sense of the factors involved.

One such factor is who gets incarcerated in the first place — for which research has shown there is bias. A study in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior found that of children with psychiatric disorders, those of a racial or ethnic minority are more likely than those who are white to be incarcerated rather than diverted to the community for treatment. As such children are placed into juvenile justice facilities, their health issues may be left untreated or worsen.

The UCLA study found disproportionate racial, ethnic and socioeconomic patterns in those incarcerated as young children. People incarcerated at the youngest ages were significantly more likely to be male, black or Hispanic than those incarcerated at older ages and those never incarcerated. They were also much more likely to have been raised in the lowest income group and in a single-parent household.

“We’re only now starting to understand the full effects of juvenile incarceration on the person, and from a health perspective, the needs of this population are largely going unmet,” Barnert said. “We need a system that effectively addresses their health challenges as early as possible — ideally preventing adolescents from ever reaching juvenile hall.”