James Forman Jr., tackling criminal justice from multiple angles
New Haven – James Forman Jr. is a professor at Yale Law School, where he teaches courses including constitutional law, “Race, Class and Punishment” and a seminar where he brings law students into a Connecticut prison to take a class alongside people incarcerated.
The son of civil rights activists, Forman said he went to law school to fight for racial justice and civil rights.
Forman’s life has been colored by his focus on the criminal justice system since the 1990s, when he worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C., for six years.
His experience as a public defender came after he clerked for Judge William Norris of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Forman said working for O’Connor came with regular Saturday meetings before arguments, where the justice would make a Tex-Mex style breakfast and her clerks would present memos of different cases.
In this Sunday conversation, The Mirror sat down with Forman at his office in New Haven to hear about his career, the classes he’s teaching at Yale, and his 2017 book called “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”
You served as a law clerk for Judge William Norris and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. What was that like?
Well those were different experiences, different judges, different courts. In terms of what they have in common, I guess that would apply to both, when you’re working as a law clerk, you’re doing the bidding of the judges you work for. You’re doing research for them, you’re drafting opinions for them, you’re getting them prepared for oral arguments, and you’re reading briefs on their behalf, and you’re getting in conversations with them. But ultimately, they’re the people that make the decisions. So for me, in some ways I realize it wasn’t a job that I necessarily loved because I didn’t get to make the call. And I found that I wanted to.
Now in the case of Judge Norris, I agreed with him most of the time so that sort of came up less … and then Justice O’Connor, that’s an amazing job because your whole law school career you’re studying the opinions that come from this court and then you get a chance to be there … and the work, it feels very important, and it is very important in that the impact of the decisions is so significant.
And Justice O’Connor was wonderful to work for on a personal level. She cares about her clerks and she wanted us to have a good experience.
From then you moved on to be a public defender and you did that for six years…
Yup, I left there and went just a mile down the street to the D.C. public defender office. I mean it was a mile away, but it was far apart from the grandeur of the Supreme Court to the nitty gritty of a big city public defender’s office.
What drew you to that?
I had gone to law school because I wanted to fight for racial justice and civil rights. My parents were in the civil rights movement. They were in [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] and I felt as if, when I looked around, the place where I saw so much injustice was our criminal system.
And the racial disparities — one in three young black men under criminal justice supervision, the largest prison system in the world — all those things seemed terrible to me and … you would read transcripts of lawyers that seemed like they had done almost nothing.
So I felt like, well, what can I do that would directly make a difference and … at that stage I was really drawn to representing people in a one-on-one kind of setting. And so being a public defender almost felt like an obvious choice because I felt like, OK, I can go and make sure everybody I represented got really high-quality representation, the kind of thing I was seeing wasn’t happening in so many cases. And D.C. has a great public defender’s office and also my dad lived in D.C. … and he had cancer, and I felt like it was important to be with him, so it was like a natural place to stay and to settle.
Do you feel like that shaped your path moving forward after that experience?
Oh yeah, I feel like it set my whole life kind of in motion. I don’t know what course things would have taken otherwise, but I feel like that taught me, really, kind of inside the system. It taught me all of the ways in which people are disadvantaged based on being poor and disadvantaged based on not having good education and disadvantaged based on race and racial biases.
And so, you just see all of that in a really kind of personal way, and I also saw people overcoming. I saw people succeeding against the odds, I saw people getting one opportunity, one chance at a drug treatment program, or their educational program, and making it.
And so, it exposes you to the unfairness but also to the potential and makes you feel like it’s worth fighting for people.
You created a charter school for people coming from that background. Was that tied into that?
Yeah, very much so. When I was a public defender, especially in juvenile court, I was always coming up against the fact that if I would win a case my clients would still return to the same neighborhood, the same community, the same school, and, in many of their cases, they had been kicked out of the regular school, so now they were in these alternative schools, which in theory is OK if the school is actually providing them better and more, but instead, so often in our country, the alternative schools provide worse and less.
And so, I was frustrated by that because I felt like, OK, well, I kept them out of prison that’s great, but they’re not on track to thrive. So what would it take for them to be on track to thrive? And along with a friend of mine we decided, OK, all of my clients, if you asked them what do they want, they all said ‘jobs, jobs, I want a job and I want a good school.’ They would always say that.
And so we started an after-school tutoring and job-training program. We bought a little pizza shop on a tough corner of D.C. and we opened it up to kids from the public defender’s office. We basically said to kids, if you want to come and work and get paid, your deal is you have to come for tutoring, so you come for tutoring from like three to five and then they would work from like five till ten and we made pizzas.
I think our pizzas were pretty good. One of my colleagues in the public defender’s office joked that, he said our slogan should be ‘Good kids making bad pizza.’
That was the precursor to the Maya Angelou Public Charter School?
That was the initial program, but it grew into the charter school it became a couple of years later because the charter school law passed in the late 1990s, and we also realized we needed to do more than run an after-school program. So we saw that moment and we said, ‘Oh, hey, let’s become a charter school. We’ll still recruit kids from the juvenile justice system, but now we can actually meet their needs in a more holistic way, in a more comprehensive way.’ And that school has been open for 20 years now.
And you left that and they actually expanded into the D.C. prison system…
Yes, so I’m still on the board, but I haven’t worked at the school for 19 years or something. Yeah, we run the school that’s inside D.C.’s juvenile prison. We took that over almost ten years ago now. The city came to us and said our school’s terrible inside the prison and you guys run a good school pretty much for a similar set of kids in the community, would you consider applying for an RFP to take over the school in the prison? And we did. It’s actually in some ways our most successful school. It’s small. Like Connecticut, D.C.’s population of incarcerated juveniles has shrunk dramatically.
So one of your classes is Race, Class and Punishment. What’s the focus of that class? Is that criminal justice based?
Yeah, I offer it different ways different years, sometimes it’s like a traditional academic seminar. We just read good books on the topic basically, and then some semesters I teach it where the students all have projects where they work with a partner organization. So last semester some students worked with public defenders in New York that are trying to change the discovery laws in that state. Another group of students worked with civil rights lawyers who are trying to change the way prosecutors behave in New Orleans. So we have these projects, and for students it’s great because they get to do something that’s applied in the real world, has an impact.
And the other seminar you teach, that’s something different.
The seminar in the prison, yeah. That’s called Inside Out: Issues in Criminal Justice. And that seminar, which is the one I’m teaching now, this semester — the first time I taught it, it was at Manson [Youth Institution]. And I’m not the only one that teaches this kind of class. It’s a national program. I am one of the few law professors who teaches it. It’s mostly college professors. And so the idea is that you teach whatever is your area where you’re an expert, and instead of teaching at your university, you teach at a local prison, and the class is half made up of people who are incarcerated and half made up of students in your home university.
So I think it’s an incredible educational model, especially for law students. I feel like in some ways it’s almost like perfect for law students because you know we have the largest prison system in the world, we’re educating people to be lawyers, many of them are interested in working in different aspects of the system. What better place to have a conversation about theories of punishment, about how we should think about victims and victims’ rights, about juvenile justice, about rehabilitation, about restorative justice, about the war on drugs? You know what better place to have those conversations than in a prison? It’s almost so obvious you would think; well, why would you be talking about the prison system on Yale’s campus, where there’s so little connection to that system?
So what does the day-to-day look like?
The way it works is, you should think about it as a regular academic class: so 13-week semester, two hours a week, the same way a seminar would happen if we were meeting here.
There’s two differences. One is we’re inside a prison; and, two, the composition of a class is half students who are incarcerated and half students who are from Yale. So the way it works is you’re in one facility, so every week I see the same 20 students.
This year we’re at the federal prison in Danbury. It’s a women’s facility … I think there are about 100 women in that facility and ten of them are in my class … We call them inside students and outside students, and the idea is to avoid stigmatizing language, like the convicts or the prisoners and the law students.
What has been the reaction from the students who take the seminar? I guess I would start by asking about the outside students?
You know, it tends to be a course that attracts students that are already interested in the criminal justice system in some way. Out of my ten outside students, probably half of them think they want to be public defenders, right? So it skews in that direction, self-selection wise. But having said that, a lot of students haven’t been in a prison, or if they have been, they maybe have only been in the visiting room. Or even if they have been, you know it’s a difference to have a lawyer-client relationship than it is to be peers in an educational setting discussing ideas the same way you would in a classroom … So I think that for them its provocative. It’s eye opening … We do a lot of ice breakers, where we do a lot of get-to-know-one-another kinds of exercises, in part because the stereotypes are strong going in on both sides.
That’s one of the surprising things. So the outside students are savvy enough to know that there are stereotypes about people who we incarcerate, right? So they know that. But in the first class section when we have a little thing that prompts people to talk about stereotypes … the outside students will think and some of them will say one of the reasons I’m taking this class is I know there’s a lot of stereotypes about people who are incarcerated and I want to try to overcome those stereotypes. What they’re always shocked by is when the inside students say, ‘I have a lot stereotypes about lawyers and I’m taking this class because I want to try to overcome some of those stereotypes.’
Do you feel like you’re learning from it also?
Oh yeah … I love teaching in general, but this is my favorite class to teach. And one of the things I love about it is that it really keeps me from getting too deep into the Ivy-League bubble of how people think about the world and the challenges people face, because when you’re having these classes, it’s very real all the time. And I love that, I love that.
Was the class relevant for you when you were writing “Locking up Our Own?”
A little less so I would say … I would say the public defender’s office experience was what was most impactful for me in thinking about that book … But I guess in one sense it was because … I feel like there are a lot of unexamined assumptions when we talk about the criminal justice system across the board and depends on where are in your (politics).
But if you’re a certain political orientation, I think people can just, without really thinking about it, assume you know it makes sense that we should lock up so many people, and, well, you do the crime you do the time, you know, and that kind of attitude. And in the circle that I operate in, it’s more like there are hard questions that people try to avoid on both sides of debate, I feel like. Because it’s just safer and more comfortable if you just reinforce your own narrative. But I feel like when you talk to and you teach people who are incarcerated, I think in a lot of ways they are less bound by some of that and so it did help me in writing the book in that I was constantly being challenged.
These kinds of situations like I was describing, where we’re having a conversation about prison abolition and the only prison abolitionists are the people who are from the law school, and then it’s a super interesting conversation to have the follow up conversation … why is that? Why is it the case that none of the people who are incarcerated are prison abolitionists? And some of them may not have been exposed to the thinking. It’s complicated.
So I just kind of love that, I love challenging my own thinking. And I feel like when you write a book like that you have to be constantly challenging your own thinking, because somebody else is going to challenge it once the book comes out.
And a main thread of the book is exploring the African-American narrative during that time in the 1970s when the prison boom started happening, and their position in all of that?
Exactly, the main idea of the book is that for the last 50 years, starting in early 1970s, which is the beginning of when we had this dramatic rise in incarceration rates, African-Americans have been subjects in the sense of being victims of crime and victims of mass incarceration, but we haven’t only been that—we’ve also been police officers, and police chiefs, and mayors and legislators, and prosecutors and activists.
And that’s why D.C. was featured so prominently in my thinking in putting the book together, because D.C. is a majority black city with a majority black political structure and a majority black police force, and a black police chief, and a black mayor, and when I was a public defender in D.C. the prosecutor was Eric Holder. He was the chief prosecutor in the city.
So here you are in this structure that has lots of African American representation … and you’re in that structure … that paradox of how even in a city like that we had these sky-high incarceration rates; and I was trying to figure out what was going on, why that was, what was that story, because I felt like that was a story that wasn’t told that well … So I feel like even though African-Americans are a minority in this country and certainly a minority in this state, the question of thinking about how African Americans have thought about and wrestled with questions of mass incarceration, questions of community safety, questions of political divisions, ideological divisions, class divisions within the African American community… Those are super interesting questions and they’re what the book is fundamentally about.
You mentioned this earlier: Your father was a pretty prominent civil rights activist and was in SNCC. Did you grow up watching your parents participate in the movement?
I was born at the very tail end of the 1960s, so I don’t have a memory about that period, but they continued to be active in social justice movements throughout my lifetime and so going to demonstrations and protests was just a thing that was part of my life as a child.
A lot of their friends were from the movement, so when people would come over, it would be conversations about work they had done together in the 1960s. And then in the moment they were still involved in things … I feel like I was raised to think about the world as a place that needed change and that was capable of change, and to think about myself as somebody who was capable of contributing to that change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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