Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption
By Bryan Stevenson, Nonfiction
Publisher, Spiegel & Grau a division of Random House Company, New York ©2014
Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and a professor of law at New York University Law School. His dedication to equal justice started in 1983 when he was a twenty-three year old law student at Harvard, assigned to an internship in Georgia.
Recently, President Obama commuted the sentences of men and women who were imprisoned for nonviolent offences. Their sentences were found to be excessive and their behavior while imprisoned, continued to be nonviolent, not a threat to themselves or others. In a recent speech, President Obama noted that volunteer and other organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative helped gather the information on prisoners who were selected for the commutation. The participation of these organizations was necessary and many of them raised private funds because Congress has not acted on funding to investigate the inequality in our current criminal justice system. In our current political campaigns, it is apparent that fear and distance can influence the way we view people and their vulnerabilities. Distance and an inability to empathize with a population can increase that fear and misunderstanding. Stevenson says, “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
According to Stevenson spending on jails and prisons by state and federal government has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion in 2014. The current cost is probably much higher. Prisons and prisoner health care is big business. Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days.
It is a fact that a large number of the excessive sentences have been delivered to people of color and children. Some of Stevenson’s most heartbreaking cases were those of children sentenced in adult courts to life in prison. By the mid 1980’s, nearly 20 percent of the people in jails and prisons in the United States had served in the military. Today, over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness. This rate is nearly five time greater than that of the general population. Stevenson details his work with wrongly imprisoned men of color on death row. He has been successful in arguing in the Supreme Court for changes in the way children are incarcerated in some southern states and he is also responsible for changing the way juries are selected in some areas. Stevenson’s narrative is threaded with his visits in prisons and the inmates he was able to interact with--Walter McMillian among them. Stevenson and others were responsible for having Walter’s case reviewed and bringing forth evidence that secured Walter’s release from death row, after being wrongly convicted and sentenced for murder.
Stevenson says, “This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.” His proximity to his clients taught him a new way of thinking about them and other vulnerable people. He had an epiphany about mercy and forgiveness and no one can explain it better than him. “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him . . . and in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating.”
Stevenson discovered the meaning of mercy in all the people he has worked with and in his experiences, discovered their impact on his life had been greater than his on theirs. Teachers, social workers, first responders, volunteers, and many others who daily interface with the most vulnerable people can probably identify, and I highly recommend Stevenson’s book for everyone, but especially for those who think they might not be able to identify.