Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr. on Monday won a Pulitzer Prize award for his powerful book tracing the growth of tough-on-crime and mass incarceration policies and their impact on people of color.
The book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” draws on Forman’s experience as a public defender in Washington, D.C., a job he took after clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1993 and 1994.
In an interview with The National Law Journal in December, Forman said his clerkship at the high court played a role in his career path and ultimately his book.
“Clerking exposed me to the dreary state of criminal defense representation in trial courts around the country, and to the federal courts’ lack of interest in doing anything about that,” Forman said. “Clerking showed me that to make a difference, I would need to work at the trial level, because on appeal was too late.”
Forman went on to say, “I decided to become a public defender in Washington, D.C., in 1994 because I viewed over-incarceration as the civil rights issue of my generation. When I got to D.C. courtrooms I encountered lots of African-American police officers, judges, prosecutors, and court employees, many (though not all) of who seemed quite comfortable with locking up my clients, who were overwhelming African-American. I thought there was a story to be told.”
The son of a leading civil rights activist from the 1960s, Forman served as a defender for six years. He taught at Georgetown University Law Center from 2003 to 2011, then joined the Yale Law School faculty, where he teaches constitutional law, a seminar called “Race, Class and Punishment,” and a seminar called “Inside Out: Issues in Criminal Justice.”
Forman also discussed his O’Connor clerkship with Terry Gross of NPR in 2017.
“That was a hard, hard year. She’s a wonderful person,” Forman said. “And I loved how she treated me as an individual, as a clerk. She still to this day … asks after my family when I see her. And she’s connected to her clerks in that way. She cares about us, and she cares about our success. But I disagreed with her on most issues that came before the court having to do with civil rights or criminal law and criminal justice.”
Asked how he handled the disagreements, Forman said he told O’Connor, “I will argue with you. I’ll tell you the truth about what I think. I will try to persuade you. But at the end of the day, you are the justice, and I’m the law clerk. And if I’m taking this job, I’m agreeing to help you do your work, right? I’m helping—if you decide to come out the other way and assign me the opinion, then I’ll write the best opinion I can for you.”
Yale Law dean Heather Gerken said in a statement: “We couldn’t be prouder of James and his work. The book is an important intervention in one of the biggest debates in American society, and it’s wonderful to see it getting the recognition it deserves.”