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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.


Research by Abrams and Barnert Earns Distinction

A study co-authored by Laura Abrams of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and Elizabeth Barnert of the Geffen School of Medicine has been honored as a “highly commended paper” by the 2019 Emerald Literati Awards, which recognizes top-quality scholarly research. The study, published in the International Journal of Prisoner Health in 2018, found that children placed in juvenile detention centers, jails or prisons before their teenage years are much more likely to experience serious physical and mental health issues as adults. More than 20 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, Abrams and Barnert found. The research points to a need for targeted health care for those incarcerated at an early age and calls into question the wisdom of detaining the youngest minors in juvenile halls, probation camps and other facilities. Abrams is professor and chair of Social Welfare; Barnert is a medical doctor and assistant professor of pediatrics. Their collaboration bridges the fields of child health and juvenile justice.


 

Leap on Plan to Step Up Oversight of Probation Department

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to KPCC about the proposed creation of an independent commission to oversee the Los Angeles County Probation Department. The plan would give commissioners wide latitude to investigate policies and practices of the department, whose juvenile detention system has come under scrutiny after reports of sexual assaults and excessive use of pepper spray, as well as attacks on detention officers. The commission, which must be approved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, would include a former juvenile detainee and the parent of a detainee. Leap commented, “They have an expertise — and I do mean an expertise, I am not using that word lightly — and a perspective in terms of the system that absolutely no one else has.” She pointed to past difficulties in getting information and clarification about the department’s practices. If approved as proposed, the new oversight body would be given the power to subpoena information.


 

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.”