Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy

If you don't know who Bryan Stevenson is, he's the lawyer who won a Supreme Court case in 2010 that outlawed sentencing people under 18 to life in prison without parole. He founded the Equal Justice Institute. While touring his recent book, Just Mercy, he spoke today at the Westminster Forum in Minneapolis.

He started off by sharing some of our country's incarceration statistics:
  • we went from a prison population of 300,000 in the early 1970s to 2.3 million today
  • we have only 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners
  • 6 million people are currently on probation
  • 60 million people have a criminal record that affects their ability get a job or housing (that's almost one-fifth of the population!)
Despite the statistics, Stevenson's talk was based on stories that put a human face on mass incarceration, and particularly the way that our faltering public defender system results in vastly unequal justice for rich and poor. He told of cases and clients with mental health issues that were never raised by their lawyers at trial, clients with mental disabilities who could barely speak who ended up being executed.

The talk was structured around four things we as a society need to do to begin to become just and equal:
  • Get into proximity with people who are not like us. This is the only way to stop being manipulated by the politics of fear -- of "super-predators," black men, the other.
  • Change the narrative. As long as Americans tell ourselves we are exceptional and everyone has equal opportunity and history doesn't exist, we will never have truth and reconciliation for our past, which affects everything about our society to this day. "Slavery didn't end, it evolved." The black people who left the South in the Great Migration were "exiles from terrorism."
  • Stay hopeful. This is hard, he admits, especially on a day like today. Stevenson told an incredible story of encountering a racist prison guard (his personal vehicle covered in Confederate flags and inflammatory bumper stickers) who later came to recognize that Stevenson's mentally ill, black client had had a worse life than his own. And that he (the prison guard) was taking his anger out on others, based on race. Wow. 
  • Do uncomfortable things. You can't get to reconciliation without discomfort. 
Our justice system values finality over fairness, Stevenson said. Even when an indigent, mentally compromised client got terrible representation, multiple levels of appeals courts turned him down for a new trial. This made me think of the Italian system, which automatically requires two appeals for every conviction. There are other ways we could do things, ways that have already been explored in other countries, if we cared about justice.

At some point in the past few years I read an article that advocated abolishing privately paid defense lawyers. In this writer's conception of a justice system, everyone would have the same level of counsel and expert witnesses. No more of our current system, which treats rich-but-guilty defendants better than it does poor-but-innocent ones. I wish I could find the link, but search as I might, it's not turning up.

Near the end of his talk, Stevenson said, "The opposite of poverty isn't wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice." It was a good way to conclude an hour of information and inspiration.


A few relevant past posts:

Juveniles deserve juvenile justice

The new Jim Crow

Constructing criminality and racing to incarcerate


Photo of Bryan Stevenson by Nina Subin


Renee Kelahan said...

Interesting! I think I will purchase this book. Thanks for sharing!

Renee Kelahan said...

Very interesting! I think I will ask for this book for Christmas. Thanks for sharing!