Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

Author(s): James Forman Jr. (Contribution by)

Society & Culture

Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction
Long-listed for the National Book Award
Finalist, Current Interest Category, Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2017
Short-listed for the Inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice

Former public defender James Forman, Jr. is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand the war on crime that began in the 1970s and why it was supported by many African American leaders in the nation's urban centers.


Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness--and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.


A former D.C. public defender, Forman tells riveting stories of politicians, community activists, police officers, defendants, and crime victims. He writes with compassion about individuals trapped in terrible dilemmas--from the men and women he represented in court to officials struggling to respond to a public safety emergency. Locking Up Our Own enriches our understanding of why our society became so punitive and offers important lessons to anyone concerned about the future of race and the criminal justice system in this country.

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction 2018

Long-listed for the National Book Award

Finalist, Current Interest Category, Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2017
Short-listed for the Inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

"Best book I've read this year." --Jennifer Senior of The New York Times on Twitter

"Superb and shattering . . . 'How did a majority -black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?' This is the exceptionally delicate question that [Forman] tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate . . . The effect, for the reader, is devastating. It is also politically consequential . . . Locking Up Our Own is also very poignantly a book of the Obama era, when black authors like [Michelle] Alexander and Bryan Stevenson and Ta--Nehisi Coates initiated difficult conversations about racial justice and inequality." --Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

"Timely . . . A masterly account of how a generation of black elected officials wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation's capital . . . A big deal and a major breakthrough . . . Forman's novel claim is this: What most explains the punitive turn in black America is not a repudiation of civil rights activism, as some have argued, but an embrace of it . . . Locking Up Our Own compel[s] readers to wrestle with some very tough questions about the nature of American democracy and its deep roots in racism, inequality and punishment . . . [Forman shows] that the solution will lie not only with policy changes but with individual changes of heart, too." --Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The New York Times Book Review

"Remarkable . . . Forman's beautifully written narrative, enriched by firsthand knowledge of the cops and courts, neither condemns black leaders in hindsight nor exonerates the white-dominated institutions . . . He adds historical nuance to the story of 'mass incarceration' told in . . . The New Jim Crow." --Charles Lane, The Washington Post

"Surprising . . . [Forman's] moving, nuanced, and candid account challenges another aspect of the 'New Jim Crow' thesis. He shows that some of the most ardent proponents of tough-on-crime policies in the era that brought us mass incarceration were black politicians and community leaders--many of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement . . . The correctives offered by Forman . . . have consequences not only for how we understand mass incarceration, but for how we go about fixing it." --David Cole, The New York Review of Books

"Revelatory . . . As Forman reminds his readers, black people have long been vigilant, often to no avail, about two kinds of equality enshrined in our nation's ideals: equal protection of the law, and equal justice under the law . . . Locking Up Our Own is a well-timed, nuanced examination of the past . . . [and] makes a powerful case that the African American community was instrumental in creating a monster. We should be grateful that the same community . . . is leading the fight to take the monster down." --Paul Butler, The Atlantic

"Poignant and insightful . . . Forman deftly moves between . . . examples of black community support for a law-and-order crackdown and the dire present-day consequences of our increasingly punitive and aggressive war on crime . . . Timely and important." --Richard Thompson Ford, San Francisco Chronicle

"Eloquent . . . A gritty, often revelatory work of local history, interspersed with tales of Forman's experiences as a public defender . . . Locking Up Our Own is a sobering chronicle of how black people, in the hope of saving their communities, contributed to the rise of a system that has undone much of the progress of the civil rights era. But, as Forman knows, they could not have built it by themselves, and they are even less likely to be able to abolish it without influential white allies, and dramatic reforms in the structure of American society." --Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

"A breakthrough . . . very engaging and lucidly written." --Andy Martin, The Indepedent (London)

"[Forman] offers an insightful history of black American leaders and their struggle to keep their communities safe from police and criminals alike . . . From both these personal experiences and the history that helped shape them, Forman uncovers the black community's role in waging wars on crime and drugs." --Matt Ford, The Atlantic

"The big spring book to argue about . . . Forman can catalogue more dysfunctional systems at close range than The Wire did." --Boris Kachka, Vulture

"A sharp analysis . . . Forman shows how our nation has gotten to the point where so many citizens--primarily blacks--are imprisoned . . . Writing with authority and compassion, the author tells many vivid stories of the human toll taken by harsh criminal justice policies. He also asks provocative questions . . . Certain to stir debate, this book offers an important new perspective on the ongoing proliferation of America's 'punishment binge.'" --Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

James Forman Jr. is a professor of law at Yale Law School. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, numerous law reviews, and other publications. A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, he spent six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., where he cofounded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School.

General Fields

  • : 9780374537449
  • : Farrar, Straus & Giroux
  • : Farrar, Straus & Giroux
  • : February 2018
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : James Forman Jr. (Contribution by)
  • : Paperback
  • : English
  • : 364.97308996
  • : 320