Final Webinar on Criminal Justice Reform with James Forman Focuses on the Practical

In the last of a series of three webinars, Yale Law Professor James Forman Jr. focused on practical, community-based solutions for improving policing, reforming the criminal justice system, and helping those who are currently or formerly incarcerated.

Throughout his conversation with the McClendon Scholar Program’s Theo Brown and with three members of congregations active in the Returning Citizens Assistance Network, Forman looked toward building alternatives to our current criminal justice system. While the answers to changing our current system will vary community by community, he emphasized that local community action has the power to make significant change.

Retribution, Rehabilitation, Restoration
In response to an informal survey, many participants had called for a reformed system guided by rehabilitation, versus retribution. Forman affirmed that perspective – and took it further.

“Retribution is one of the theories that underlies our system,” he said, “And we all have retributive impulses. I know I do.” He noted that these impulses have “overwhelmed our justice system.” Instead, he said, he likes to focus on a vision of restoration. “What does it take so people thrive … so people feel safe? At the end of the day that’s what we want: Flourishing, the ability to dream.”

Participants also called for eliminating the bias in our current system. Forman again affirmed the concern. US history has included a bias against people of color, he said, “since even before there was what we could call a system,” and that it “touches and pollutes every aspect” of our current criminal justice system.

Promising Ideas
Forman said that he sees the most promising action happening at the community level, where communities and cities come together to ask “What can we do to reduce police contact with citizens?” While there is bias in every part of the criminal justice system, he said, contact with the system begins with the police. How can that contact be reduced? For example, he asked, “what if we sent mental health workers to respond to people wo are in crisis?”

“We’ve been trained as a nation that if there’s a problem, if the music is loud … if you have someone in your community or your family that’s having a mental health breakdown, we’ve been trained to call 911 over and over again.” Forman is most excited these days about initiatives to build up alternatives: “Those are the things that will make us safe and make us free with less policing and less racial bias.”

Defunding versus Building
Forman says he stays away from the term “defund” when talking about policing. Instead, he likes to focus on what we can build. He agreed with moderator Theo Brown that imagination is crucial for these initiatives, and he once again also emphasized the practical. Currently, criminal justice is one of the most popular college majors. But we need universities to train people for new systems: “Where’s the training program for the people who are going to work in this alternative to 911 system that I’m describing?”

This emphasis on building also addresses the potential fear in communities. “Always start with what we’re building, creating, doing” he said, encouraging everyone to look for the programs and projects that currently exist. “It might be a program with a staff of one, it might be operating out of a church basement … but it’s there.” Lead with that program, tell a story of success as you work for systemic change, he advised, adding “Black communities right now … they don’t want to have less, they want to have more. … You cannot start with what they’re going to lose on the public safety front. You have to start with what you’re going to build.”

The Moral and the Practical
The second part of the one-hour webinar included questions from members of congregations in the city who work with the Returning Citizens Assistance Network (RCAN). Questions ranged from concerns about mental health services, to how we treat children and youth in the justice system, to educational opportunities within the system. In his responses, Forman pointed to how our law and policy and culture in the 1980s and 1990s led to problems on all these fronts. “We did a whole bunch of aggressive things. We now know they aren’t good for young people and not good for communities.”

“We have an obligation to help people reach their potential as a moral matter, he said, “but it helps all of us. For every dollar we invest in education for someone who’s locked up, as a society we get $5 in return. … If we allow people to be human, then they’re more likely to succeed when they get out.”

Several organizations that work toward reform were mentioned, including the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (now known as Break Free Education), Duante Betz’ Million Book Project, and the Free Minds Book Club. You can also find lists of local and national organizations featured in the first two James Forman Jr. presentations in the recent programs section of the McClendon Scholar webpage.

The problems can be overwhelming, Forman acknowledged, but over and over again he emphasized the power of community-based solutions. In talking with a member of Emory Fellowship about writing letters to people in prison, he said:

“Please do not underestimate the power that comes from the one letter you write, those three Black Panther magazines you just sent. … One of the hardest things is believing that everyone forgot about you.”

You can access James Forman’s full presentations on our website here.

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