Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘james forman jr.

James Forman on the Limitations of the Jim Crow Analogy

with one comment

In the current issue of the Boston Review, Georgetown Law professor James Forman has some interesting thoughts on two of last year’s most significant books on mass incarceration — Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Here’s Forman on the limitations of Alexander’s account:

This account of the origins of mass incarceration reinforces the Jim Crow analogy by tracing a direct line from a profound social ill (mass imprisonment) to a well-known enemy (racist voters and politicians who pander to them). But the account is incomplete. Something else was going on in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s: violent crime shot up dramatically just before the beginning of the prison boom. Homicide rates doubled between 1965 and 1975, and robbery rates tripled.

The increase in crime helped to fuel demands for more punitive policies. In The Politics of Imprisonment, Vanessa Barker describes how black activists in Harlem fought for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. Harlem residents were outraged by rising crime rates in their neighborhoods and sought increased police presence and stiffer penalties. …

Those who call attention to the harm caused by our current criminal-justice policies must also be ruthlessly honest about the harm caused by crime. This, too, is a matter of racial justice: victims of crime—especially violent crime—are disproportionately poor, young, and black or brown. It is also a strategic imperative. Tough-on-crime advocates are not going to stop talking about violent offenders and the need to protect communities from them. If reformers shy away from the topic, their chances of building a broad movement for change will suffer.

The review is well worth reading in full. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the carceral state was already on its way to expansion even before homicide rates shot up in the late 1960s. It’s worth wondering whether black leaders responded to violence in their communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s by calling for more incarceration at least in part because that was a solution that the nation, dating back to the Johnson years, had already indicated that it would support; whereas more comprehensive social programs such as those envisioned by Johnson’s War on Poverty were already falling out of favor.

Mass Incarceration and the War on Terror

with 9 comments

A common criticism of the Bush Administration was that, in prosecuting the War on Terror, the administration turned its back on fundamental American ideals such as due process, the right to counsel, and habeas corpus. (See, for instance, Jane Mayer’s indispensable expose The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, Doubleday, 2008.) Yet, in a recent article in the NYU Review of Law and Social Change, Georgetown law professor and former public defender James Forman Jr. suggests that the War on Terror was not so much a reversal, as the logical extension of the War on Crime in the era of mass incarceration. The full cite is “Exporting Harshness: How the War on Crime Helped Make the War on Terror Possible,” 33 NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change 331 (2009). From the introduction (pp. 332-33):

While I share much of the criticism of how we have waged the war on terror, I suspect it is both too simple and ultimately too comforting to assert that the Bush administration alone remade our justice system and betrayed our values. …

By pursuing certain policies and using particular rhetoric domestically, I suggest, we have rendered thinkable what would otherwise have been unthinkable. Moreover, as the world’s largest jailer, we are increasingly desensitized to the harsh treatment of criminals. We have come to accept such excesses as casualties of war—whether on crime, drugs, or terror. Indeed, more than that, we no longer see what we do as special, different, or harsh. Certain practices have become what [NYU sociology professor] David Garland calls “the taken-for-granted features of contemporary crime policy.” In part for this reason, despite the mounting evidence regarding secret memos, inhumane prison conditions, coercive interrogations, and interference with defense lawyers, the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror went largely unchecked and unchanged.

Forman argues that by placing all the blame on isolated Bush Administration officials, we avoid confronting our own responsibility (p. 339): Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

February 16, 2010 at 7:56 am

%d bloggers like this: