Alexander Lejas, Contributing Photographer

In 2017, Yale Law professor James Forman Jr. published his first book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” The book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. 

For the next three years, Forman traveled the country, giving talks at public libraries, bookstores, community organizations, universities and more. Across his wide range of audiences, Forman invariably received the same question: “What can we, your readers, your listeners, members of the American public, do to reform the criminal justice system?” 

That question became the inspiration for his next book, “Dismantling Mass Incarceration: A Handbook for Change,” coauthored with fellow former public defenders and mass incarceration specialists Maria Hawilo and Premal Dharia. 

“The book I wanted to write was the book I wanted to be able to give to audience members when they asked that question. You want to know what you can do? Here’s the book that you’re going to need to answer that,” Forman told the News. “I wanted to write about what regular people who are appalled by the state of our criminal justice system, can actually do about it.”

The book, set to be published this summer, is an anthology of essays focused on that very question — how to work to change the ingrained injustices of our criminal justice system. 

Coauthor Maria Hawilo, a professor at Loyola Chicago Law School, was similarly inspired by questions about how to get involved in working to reform the criminal justice system. Only in her case, the questions came from her students. 

I’ve been teaching a seminar on mass incarceration for several years now, and many of my students have pushed me to talk, not just about the existence and the history of this massive system, but the possible solutions, the possible ways to work to change it,” Hawilo said. “Lots of people have written really fantastic books on the causes and the consequences, but there’s much less out there on the solutions.”

Like Forman, Hawilo wanted to write a book she could give to the people asking her those questions.

“Dismantling Mass Incarceration” is divided into five sections: police, public defenders, courts and judges, prison and life after prison, tracing a trajectory through the criminal justice system. Each section is preceded by an essay written jointly by Forman, Hawilo and Dharia.

The sections are not limited to one argument, framework or point of view, but rather seek to give windows into conversations and showcase the diverse range of thinking toward achieving solutions.

“The book contains a lot of disagreement,” Forman said. “Early on, we decided that although we were going to exercise some editorial function, deciding what goes in and what doesn’t, we were not going to have as an editorial status that we all have to agree with what an essay says for it to go into the book — in fact, we can all disagree with a particular essay, and it should still go in.”

Hawilo explained that she sees the inclusion of varying opinions as a crucial part of the work the book is trying to do. “I tend to think that public defenders should get more resources … that doesn’t completely match up with the abolitionist perspective, in that we’re throwing money into the system, and that’s part of the necessary discussion we need to be having, that I hope this book will be part of,” she added.

For Premal Dharia, executive director of the Institute to End Mass Incarceration at Harvard Law School and the book’s third author, inspiration to work on the project came from a sense of responsibility that grew out of her 15 years as a public defender. “Lawyers have played a role in creating and sustaining mass incarceration and we thus have, in my view, an obligation to work toward its end,” she told the News.

The book comes in the midst of an outpouring of writing and activism on the subject of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. Both Forman and Hawilo noted how much recent, incredible literature exists, expressing a desire to add to the dialogue a work that moves beyond the historical, into the present, helping guide readers toward and through working for change today. 

“A book like this is not the first book you should read about the criminal justice system,” Forman said. “In my mind, this is a book to read after you have read some of that more historical work — maybe you’ve read ‘The New Jim Crow,’ or ‘Between the World and Me,’ or ‘Just Mercy’ or Elizabeth Hinton’s works — you’ve read books that help give you some of the historical perspective and urgency, and now you want to learn more about how to respond. That’s where we come in.” 

Forman’s colleague, Yale Law School professor Miriam Gohara, said she is excited to read the book because of that focus on potential change, echoing the hopes of Forman and Hawilo in distinguishing their work from much of current scholarship. She added that she views Forman as exceptional in finding innovative solutions to existing problems, citing his work the charter school he founded in Washington, D.C., as well as his last book. 

“Over the past decade, people have written plenty about the problem and what led to it, so now is a good time to see what is working to get people out of prison, change sentencing laws, reduce prosecutions and other innovative practices that people should learn more about,” said Gohara. 

Reflecting on the amount of scholarship in the area and the place of their new work within it, Dharia discussed her hope that the book will help synthesize the varied ways in which people around the country are fighting to change the system.

“There are so many incredible efforts underway to confront that system,” said Dharia. “I’m hopeful this handbook offers pathways for further intervention by people already doing the work as well as new openings for those who want to.” 

Forman expressed a similar hope of communicating to readers the many forms fighting for change can take, adding that there are hundreds of ways ordinary people working in the community can do something to make the criminal justice system, in his words, “smaller, more rational, less harmful and more effective.” 

“I hope people who read the book come away understanding that the ideas are out there,” he said. “Every single one of the many things we talk about in the book is being done somewhere across the country — the ideas exist and the work is possible. So really, it’s just a question of getting to work.”

“Dismantling Mass Incarceration: A Handbook for Change” will be available beginning July 9, 2024.

Correction, April 13: Dharia’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this article. It has been updated with the correct spelling.

Isabel Kalb is a staff reporter for the News. She is a junior majoring in American History.