James Forman Jr. is an academic who studies the criminal justice system, which is not unusual for a former clerk to a Supreme Court justice. But Forman also worked for years as a public defender in Washington, D. C. This gives him profound first-hand experience of the system that is less common among legal scholars. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Forman calls on both his experiences and the latest scholarship to tell a story that complicates our understanding of mass incarceration in the United States. While in Philadelphia earlier this month for a reading, Forman came by the offices of The Smart Set to discuss his book. A passionate critic of the system, despite the often depressing tale he tells, Forman comes across as an optimist who believes, even in the face of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that we can continue with widespread criminal justice reform.
My youth was filled with warnings. “Just Say No,” “This is Your Brain on Drugs,” and “No Means No” pervaded the cultural ether in the early ’90s. The advice came from our teachers, police officers who came to our classrooms, and my parents. My mother was particularly good at training me to recognize and avoid stranger danger. As a kindergartner, I learned adults never ask for help from children (which now as an adult myself, I can confirm; they are useless at directions). If a stranger attempted to pick me up, I was to yell “NOT MY PARENT” as I melted into dead weight, rendering me nearly impossible to transport into a vehicle. And if a family friend came to pick me up from school, my parents and I had a secret code to ensure they were legit messengers vetted and verified (PocahontasDaisy, if I recall correctly). As far as I can tell, no attempts were ever made, but I was (and continue to be) on the lookout for shenanigans. My friends have similar stories regarding the ways in which they were warned against becoming victims — with similar threads — stranger dangers, candy vans, and codes. Our parents clearly survived their youths in order to pass down these lessons, which made it all the stranger that they were so afraid we wouldn’t survive ours.
By my birth in 1985, there had been two world wars that affected generations of our families. Men came home traumatized, women shifted their priorities, children adjusted until they inevitably feared Russians and nuclear war. As if Charles Manson’s destruction of the ’60s had been a battle cry, the 1970s and ’80s saw the proliferation of high-profile serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Robert Hansen, Richard Ramirez, and the Zodiac Killer (and that’s just a handful) invading the public’s conscience. They were the “everyman” who lived in any town next to any person. Bundy was a charmer who volunteered at suicide hotlines. Gacy and Hansen were pillars of their community. And the nameless — like Zodiac — were so adept at blending in they were never caught. More… “Girl Afraid”
Mina Harker, with her brain addled and her blood poisoned by the vampire Count Dracula, tells Dr. Van Helsing while in the midst of a semi-trance that: “The Count is a criminal and of criminal type. Nordau and Lombroso would classify him, and qua criminal he is of imperfectly formed mind.” As such, Mina tells the men assembled around her — Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. John Seward, Lord Godalming, Quincey Morris, and her husband Jonathan Harker — that Dracula is “selfish; and as his intellect is small and his action is based on selfishness, he confines himself to one purpose.” That one purpose is to return to his native soil in Transylvania. There, contrary to most subsequent film adaptations, Count Dracula is felled not by a wooden stake or the sun’s rays, but by a combination of Jonathan Harker’s kukri and Morris’s Bowie knife. Bram Stoker decided to end his 1897 novel Dracula, which is the Count’s first appearance in pop culture, with an ending fitting only for a criminal dumb enough to return to the scene of the crime. More… “Undead and Born Criminal”
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment opened in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago with McGruff the Crime Dog greeting guests outside the entrance. The museum (which was financed by an Orlando lawyer and produced in conjunction with the Fox TV show America’s Most Wanted) strives to bring interactivity and entertainment to a museum about crime. I visited on a soft opening day, and then again the next day for the grand opening, the major difference between these days being that on grand opening day, McGruff high-fived me at the door, John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted was rumored to be in the building, and entrance was free for all law enforcement officers.
Both days, though, were united by the strange tonal shifts one experiences when one engages in silly fun, reads random factoids, and is then… More…
On the way back down from the Lost City, I rested with a Colombian anti-guerrilla soldier reading a Spanish language women’s magazine by the side of the trail. I asked him to read my horoscope so he paged past the cosmetics ads to read from his lap that the stars were aligned for my emotional, financial, and spiritual well-being. He was dressed in army fatigues, shaved bald, and his gun lay next to him in the dirt. “Crisis,” he said in Spanish. “What’s crisis?” I asked. “Like a big problem. Crisis,” he continued with authority, “for one moment is magic.” I looked out over the seemingly endless Colombian jungle and pretty much understood him.
On the first full morning on the trek to the indigenous ruins of Ciudad Perdida, our group stopped for a side trip to a cocaine paste factory. We circled up around a weed… More…
Last summer I got a ticket for riding mass transit one stop outside of Fareless Square without fare. I went to court hoping to use the “I was wearing my iPod and didn’t hear the announcement” defense, but when I came before the judge he was pissed at the big group of defendants, and he just scolded us and gave us the choice of paying a $90 fine or doing eight hours of community service. Someone had carved “This judge is a fucker” into the bench I stood by, and that made the scolding bearable. I was also glad the fucker was offering us the eight hours of community service, because I didn’t have $90.
When I got to the used clothing store I’d been assigned, the manager was already exhausted with me. She told me not to hide, and that she could tell “when you guys try to hide.”… More…