...[a] superb and shattering first book ... That is truly what this book is about, and what makes it tragic to the bone: How people, acting with the finest of intentions and the largest of hearts, could create a problem even more grievous than the one they were trying to solve ... This is the exceptionally delicate question that he tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate. Seldom does he reprimand the actors in this story for the choices they made ... The stories he shares are not just carefully curated to make us think differently about criminal justice (though they will, particularly about that hallowed distinction between nonviolent drug offenders and everyone else); they are stories that made Forman himself think differently, and it’s in telling them that he sheds his cautious, measured self and becomes a brokenhearted, frustrated civil servant.
...[a] poignant and insightful new book ... Forman deftly moves between examples of black community support for a law-and-order crackdown and the dire present-day consequences of our increasingly punitive and aggressive war on crime.
...a masterly account of how a generation of black elected officials wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation’s capital ... Forman’s novel claim is this: What most explains the punitive turn in black America is not a repudiation of civil rights activism, as some have argued, but an embrace of it ... compel[s] readers to wrestle with some very tough questions about the nature of American democracy and its deep roots in racism, inequality and punishment.
Forman agrees that the war on drugs has had only a minor part in the dramatic rise of incarceration rates. But his moving, nuanced, and candid account challenges another aspect of the ‘new Jim Crow’ thesis. He shows that some of the most ardent proponents of tough-on-crime policies in the era that brought us mass incarceration were black politicians and community leaders—many of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement. They supported these policies not to subordinate African-Americans, but to protect them from the all-too-real scourges of crime and violence in many inner-city communities … These facts do not negate the standard account of mass incarceration, but they certainly complicate it. The problem cannot be reduced to drug laws, longer sentences, a crackdown on nonviolent offenders, or a racist conspiracy … As Forman suggests in an inspiring account of an armed robbery case he handled as a public defender, part of the solution may involve encouraging victims to favor mercy rather than vengeance.
Forman’s attentiveness to class divisions in the black community offers an exemplary perspective. The book achieves genuine immediacy, due not only to the topical subject, but also to Forman’s personal experiences within the legal system. Possibly controversial, undoubtedly argumentative, Forman’s survey offers a refreshing breath of fresh air on the crisis in American policing.
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—e.g., what if the D.C. drug epidemic had been treated as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem? Certain to stir debate, this book offers an important new perspective on the ongoing proliferation of America’s 'punishment binge.'”