The Rialto Theater’s partnership with Philanthropy Northwest sparked an interesting discourse regarding race and the harsh realities of injustice within our criminal justice system. As part of their deep commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, Philanthropy Northwest hosted an exceedingly important dialogue surrounding one of the most pressing issues in America today — the mass incarceration of black and Latinx people.
The keynote speaker of the evening, James Forman Jr., is a lawyer, professor at Yale Law School and Pulitzer Prize winner for his book “Locking up our own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” Forman Jr. shared his personal experiences of being a black public defender tasked with providing a strong defense for young black men and women. In a system where black and Latinx people experience higher rates of racial profiling, harsher sentences and overall disenfranchisement after time served, Forman Jr. details his first-hand accounts of the effects of mass incarceration. Throughout the evening, he stressed the importance of continuous advocacy and support for current and former convicts who are seemingly forgotten by society.
Forman Jr. is the son of civil rights activists James Forman Sr. and Constancia Romilly, who together helped lead the fight for equality in Atlanta, Georgia during the early 1960’s. Forman Jr. spoke in admiration of his parents’ work and dedicated fight for freedom and equality at a pivotal time for human rights.
“Their generation changed and transformed this country in ways that we have yet to take full account of,” Forman Jr. said.
It was through his parents’ influence and guidance that Forman Jr. graduated from Yale Law School with the intent of helping young men and women of color navigate and stay out of Washington D.C.’s criminal courts. Although many colleagues and friends suggested he put his efforts into organizations such as the NAACP, Forman Jr. opted for the position of public defender, where he worked in Washington D.C. for six years.
“I had taken the job as being a public defender because I viewed it as the civil rights work of my generation,” Forman Jr. said.
His work as a public defender truly allowed him to see the scope of the problem he and his clients were up against. To help put the problem into perspective, Forman Jr. informed and reminded attendees of the disheartening facts surrounding our justice system.
“The U.S. holds 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we hold 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” Forman Jr. said.
Even scarier than that large percentage is the large, overly disproportionate rate of people of color within prisons. According to a recent Pew research study, the prison population is 33 percent black, 30 percent white and 23 percent Latinx, which does not reflect the overall demographics for the country, which is 64 percent white, 12 percent black and 16 percent Latinx.
Forman Jr. discussed the many factors that go into this disproportionate rate from a historical and current context. Historically, the U.S. has upheld and maintained several discriminatory and racist laws that increased the amount of black and Latinx people in prison. At the same time, we have phenomenon — such as mandatory sentencing laws and housing and job discrimination toward ex cons — which inevitably makes it exceedingly difficult for people to stay out of the system once they have paid for their crimes.
Forman Jr. challenged audience members to think broadly about what they can do to help support a more equitable justice system. By continuing such a powerful dialogue and speaking out against issues of racism within the criminal justice system, it can help raise awareness and bring positive change.