James Forman, Jr.
Former Public Defender, Professor, and Criminal Justice Reformer

James Forman, Jr. has received widespread acclaim——from The New York Times to Kirkus Reviews——for Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. His investigation into the increasingly urgent debate of America’s criminal justice system seeks to understand and explain the role that many African American leaders played, beginning in the 1970s, in supporting the nation’s war on crime.


His position as professor at Yale Law School, like his experience as a public defender, informs and contextualizes his analysis of American criminal justice. Professor Forman is a graduate of Atlanta’s Roosevelt High School, Brown University, and Yale Law School, and was a law clerk for Judge William Norris of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the United States Supreme Court.


After clerking, he joined the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., where for six years he represented juveniles and adults charged with crimes. Public speaking was a crucial part of the job: Winning a case depended on persuading juries and judges.


During his work as a public defender, Professor Forman became frustrated with the lack of education and job training opportunities for his clients. In 1997, he and David Domenici founded the See Forever Foundation, which, that same year, opened the Maya Angelou Public Charter School——an alternative school for school dropouts and youth who had been arrested. Over the next decade the foundation expanded to a second campus and then a third, launching the Maya Angelou Academy for incarcerated young men in 2007. The D.C. prison’s education program——long considered an abysmal failure——has been transformed under the leadership of the Maya Angelou staff. The court monitor overseeing D.C.’s juvenile system called the turnaround “extraordinary.”


Professor Forman currently teaches Constitutional Law, Race and the Criminal Justice System, and the Educational Opportunity and Juvenile Justice Clinic. In the clinic, Professor Forman and his students represent young people facing expulsion from school for discipline violations. His team works to keep their clients in school and on track towards graduation.


In addition, Professor Forman writes and speaks about criminal and juvenile justice, education law and policy, and the school-to-prison pipeline. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Boston Review, and the Nation.


Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America was published in the spring of 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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Locking Up Our OwnCrime and Punishment in Black America
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

In recent years, America’s criminal justice system has become the subject of an increasingly urgent debate. Critics have assailed the rise of mass incarceration, emphasizing its disproportionate impact on people of color. As James Forman, Jr., points out, however, the war on crime that began in the 1970s was supported by many African American leaders in the nation’s urban centers. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand why.

Locking Up Our Own Based on his critically-acclaimed book by the same name, this talk builds on Forman's work as a public defender, a founder of a charter school for incarcerated teens, and a law professor to outline the criminal justice crisis with both data and human stories. He leaves the audience with hope for what can be done to make a difference, and how they themselves can contribute to change.

Fighting for Racial Justice during the Trump Presidency Professor Forman addresses two issues that have been his life’s work and that he considers central to today’s civil rights movement—working against mass incarceration and for better schools. He offers a message of hope, along with concrete suggestions about how to make progress even in the current moment, when national politics are challenging. Throughout the talk, Forman draws insight and inspiration from the words and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists, including his father, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Race and Education Professor Forman discusses race, class, and American public schools. He draws on his own research, his experience as a founder of a charter school for kids from the juvenile justice system, and his experience teaching a class at Yale where he takes law students into a Connecticut prison for a weekly seminar.

Read the New York Times Book Review of Locking Up Our Own.

Check out Locking Up Our Own‘s inclusion on the NYT Book Review’s “10 Books We Recommend This Week.”

Read Forman’s articles, “The Society of Fugitives” and “Between the World and Me: 10,000 Years from Tomorrow” published in The Atlantic. 

TIME quotes Forman in its discussion on the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

Read about Locking Up Our Own in reference to The New Jim Crow.

Listen to James on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Read an in-depth discussion of Locking Up Our Own and its arguments in The Atlantic’s June 2017 issue.

Watch Tavis Smiley interview James on PBS.

Watch or read the PBS NewsHour interview with James.

Listen to James’ appearance on This is Happening.

Read about Locking Up Our Own in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Read a perspective from outside the U.S. in The Guardian‘s review of Locking Up Our Own.

Read a powerful, thought-provoking review of Locking Up Our Own in the London Review of Books.

Read how Locking Up Our Own “[debunks] common talking point about African Americans’ views on crime” in the Washington Post.

Read James’ feature in the Huffington Post.

Follow James on Twitter.

Praise for Locking Up Our Own

"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 . . . It’s [Forman's] six years as a public defender that seem most relevant to the sensibility of this book—and that give it a special halo, setting it apart."
— Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

"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)

Praise for Professor Forman

“James Forman, Jr. is a highly engaging speaker, combining hard data with moving and poignant anecdotes. I invited him to be the keynote speaker at a conference on children's rights and juvenile justice in January 2016. He was outstanding.”
—Professor Kim Ford-Mazrui, University of Virginia School of Law

“James Forman Jr. is an eloquent, engaging, and inspiring speaker. His remarks encourage both reflection and action.”
—Loni M. Bordoloi, Ph.D., Program Director of the Teagle Foundation

"James Forman's convocation address at Macalester was thoroughly compelling: relaxed, lively, yet filled with matters of substance and seriousness. He speaks to the subjects of most importance in our times and does so in a way that is personal and persuasive. I would invite him back to speak again at Macalester in an instant."
—Brian Rosenberg, President of Macalester College

"James Forman's expert and profoundly humanistic presentation on the roots of racialized mass incarceration led his appreciative audience to a deeper understanding of the roots of the problem and what it will take to fix it."
—Tim Ready, Director of Lewis Walker Instittute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations, Western Michigan University