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Criminal Justice Reform - "Locking Up Our Own"

When I came home from my arts-focused sleep away camp, I noticed a book on my mother's desk, "Locking Up Our Own" by James Forman Jr. My Dad saw me pick it up and told me the author would be speaking at a San Francisco bookshop the following week. I had read the book "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers in English class and visited the San Francisco Public Defenders office with the Youth Policy Camp, so I decided to go.

The last time I attended a bookstore for an author event was to see a picture book writer read to children. This was much different.

Forman, a well-respected Yale Law professor and former public defender, discussed policies from the '70s and '80s that were aimed at addressing rising crime rates, but resulted in the mass incarceration of blacks. Forman explained that many of the African-American officials taking office after the Civil Rights movement were the ones who lobbied for measures against drug-dealing and gun violence at the request of their African-American constituents who complained about their unsafe neighborhoods.

But tougher laws against crime were not the only things they had asked for on behalf of their constituents. They also wanted better schools, jobs, and an agressive effort to rebuild their struggling neighborhoods. But all they got was harsh criminal enforcement that disproportionaly affected the black community. Even in liberal San Francisco, which is less than 8% black, more than half the people in jail are African American.

A question probably burning in your mind as it was mine is how can we change this. "We are going to have to dismantle this system the same way it was built: slowly and by all pushing in the same direction," said Forman at the bookstore talk. Forman also gave some examples of actions people can take: If you work at a company, review HR policies - would you hire people with a criminal record and help give them a fresh start? If you belong to a church, can you adopt a returning citizen by helping them get an ID, find housing, and a stable job? Teachers and professors can even teach a class at a prison system -- Forman did this himself while at Yale and found it inspiring and lifechanging.

It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless when thinking of the enormity of effort it would take to make the world a better place, whether that be destroying the school-to-prison pipeline, reforming immigration policies, or even finding a better-qualified president. But I found comfort in Forman's words, for as long as we are all doing something, we can and will make a change.

"Because if we do it," says Forman, "slowly, but surely, we will dismantle this massive, and unjust system."

James Forman Jr. and me.


  1. Great work! Slowly, but surely, we will change the laws and the prison industrial complex.


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