James Forman, Jr.
Lawyer, Professor, and Race Relations Expert

James Forman, Jr. is a Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He 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 both juveniles and adults charged with crimes. Public speaking was a crucial part of his job as a public defender, as winning a case depended on persuading juries and judges with oral advocacy.


During his time as a public defender, Professor Forman became frustrated with the lack of education and job training opportunities for his clients. So in 1997, along with David Domenici, he started the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, an alternative school for school dropouts and youth who had previously been arrested. A decade later, in 2007, Maya Angelou School expanded and agreed to run the school inside D.C.’s juvenile prison. That school, which had long been 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 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, and they work to keep their clients in school and on track towards graduation.


Professor Forman teaches, 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. Professor Forman’s book, 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

Today, Americans are debating our criminal justice system with new urgency. Mass incarceration and aggressive police tactics—and their impact on people of color—are feeding outrage and a consensus that something must be done. But what if we only know half the story? In Locking Up Our Own, Yale legal scholar and former public defender James Forman Jr. weighs the tragic role that some African Americans themselves played in escalating the war on crime. Drawing on his experience as a public defender and focusing on Washington, D.C., Forman writes with compassion for individuals trapped in terrible dilemmas—from the young men and women he defended to officials struggling to cope with an impossible situation.

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 Criminal Justice From over-incarceration to police shootings, Americans are beginning to recognize the profound problems with our criminal justice system. Drawing on his work as a public defender, founder of a charter school for incarcerated teens, and law professor, Forman outlines the criminal justice crisis with both data and human stories. He also leaves the audience with hope for what can be done to make a difference, and how they themselves can contribute to change.

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.

Watch Tavis Smiley interview James on PBS.

Watch or read the PBS NewsHour interview with James

Listen to James’ appearance on This is Happening

Follow James on Twitter

“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