By Jill leavey
Assistant News Editor
Yale law professor and criminal justice advocate James Forman Jr. spoke at Hofstra about reforming America’s criminal “injustice” system on Tuesday, Nov. 7. The event was centered around his recently published book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment In Black America,” but also focused on student involvement in efforts to ameliorate the current criminal system’s relationship with African-American communities across the United States.
Forman felt compelled to write this book after witnessing firsthand the injustices caused and perpetuated within black communities as a former clerk for the 9th Circuit, Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor and public defender in Washington D.C. His father, James Forman, was a notable figure in the civil rights movement who instilled an unapologetic sense of determination to combat racism.
According to Forman, the term “mass incarceration” has only been recently developed in light of the United States’ staggering number of prisoners and recidivism rate. At the height of his legal career in the 1990s, Americans accounted for only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Additionally, one in three young black males at that time was under some sort of surveillance by the criminal system – whether it be prison, jail or parole. “I used to call it the criminal justice system, but lately people have been pressing me on ‘where’s the justice in this system,’” Forman said.
In black communities there is often an “under-enforcement and under-protection” of the law, patterns of the failure to preserve the well-being of its own citizens. “It also had to be about the larger power structure, institutional and structural racism – all of the things that limit and constrain the ability of the people that I’m writing about to achieve their goals,” Forman said. These constraints can be defined as historical disempowerment and socially or politically imposed limitations. He urged audience members to cultivate broader imaginations in order to create new methods of expelling systemic racism.
The event was fittingly held on this year’s Election Day, when local prosecutors, judges and officials were on the ballot. Many of these individuals campaigned on criminal reform on federal, state and local levels. When he asked the audience who the local prosecutor is, less than one third of the room raised their hands despite the elected role being crucial within the local justice system.
At the Hofstra level, the university can take steps to fight back against an unjust system. He proposed two solutions: partaking in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and “banning the box.” The first option would give university students the opportunity to enroll in a class taught by their professor alongside incarcerated persons at a local prison. Typically, classes within this program will analyze the philosophy of crime, punishment, justice and freedom from the unique perspective of the incarcerated and non-incarcerated students.
Some students expressed positive attitudes toward participating in Inside-Out classes as it would reap benefits for themselves. “We would learn how to communicate with people from different backgrounds. Different decisions dictate where you are in life, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve an education,” said Sadijah Johnson, a third year law student.
Forman teaches an Inside-Out class through Yale with his law students, and reported that students have made positive statements about the program. “I like the law and the policy that we learned, but most of all, I liked that when I entered the seminar circle I was treated as if I was smart. I was treated like I had important things to say. On some days, I was even treated like I was an intellectual,” Forman said that an incarcerated student wrote in his evaluation.
Banning the box would mean that Hofstra eliminates the box that is currently found on undergraduate applications that requires a response regarding the applicant’s criminal history. Under the “Additional Information” portion of the application it asks, “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, or do you have any charges of a misdemeanor or felony pending against you?”
Forman said that while an institution may not necessarily judge applicants based on their answers, it may deter some from even applying. “I find it very unfair that many people get turned away from receiving a great education at a great school meanwhile these people are just as intelligent as anyone else and deserve the same benefits and rights of anyone who is free and not incarcerated,” said Alexa Kalinoglu, a junior criminology major.
“Don’t be afraid to be unpopular,” Forman said. He reminded the attendees that the civil rights movement was not a magical period, citing Gallup polls that reflected American’s unfavorable view of Martin Luther King Jr. during that time. Forman said, “People will tell you that change is impossible, but if you’re young and you ignore them and you advocate, and you legislate, and you litigate, then you win and you overcome the system.”