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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

By Bryan Stevenson

–Review by Paula Jones

I am a product of the Deep South where I’ve learned that insanity is sometimes heat-induced, that “Bless your heart,” can be both a prayer and an insult, that the worst thing you can possibly be is ‘tacky,’ and that using “law and order” rhetoric will automatically get you elected to public office. It will also keep you in office. In the 1980’s, with the politics of fear and anger spreading throughout the country, politicians were fueled to enact harsh new laws that resulted in unprecedented mass incarceration. Additional regulations prohibited probation or parole for those already imprisoned. The prison industrial complex was born with numerous lobbyists who helped create new crime categories while blocking sentencing reforms. That mindset is still alive and well. Only in recent years are some finally realizing that we are never going to build our way to safety by constructing more prisons. Bryan Stevenson learned that lesson decades before most of us.

As a child, each time Stevenson visited his grandmother, she would wrap her arms around him, pull him in close, and say, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” His book Just Mercy is the story of how he has spent his life doing just that––getting close to mass incarceration. In doing so, Stevenson echoes his grandmother’s words, saying, “Proximity made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful.”

As you read his account, you will grow to understand a number of sad facts about our justice system. For example, the United States has more incarceration people than any other country in the world (approximately 2.3 million). One in fifteen of our citizens born this century will go to jail, one in three black males. Thirteen states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults, so theoretically an eight-year-old can be tried as an adult. One quarter million children under 18 are presently in adult prisons, and we are the only country in world that continues to sentence juveniles to life. More than 46% of the prison population is there for non-violent drug offenses fueled by misguided drug laws, and some are there for decades.

As you read, you may also have to face some unpleasant truths about yourself. Because we humans find it so easy to condemn people for mistakes, as a rule we are alarmingly unconcerned with incorrect verdicts. We tend to ignore injustice as long as it does not affect people ‘like us.’ We are amazingly comfortable with bias, with excessive punishment, and with unfair prosecution. We are inclined to accept superficial investigation by law enforcement without question. Most revealing of all, while none of us would want our own humanity assessed based on the worst thing we ever did, we are surprisingly at ease permanently reducing other people to their worst act.

As a graduate of Harvard Law School, Stevenson could have spent his life maximizing financial benefits working for any number of prestigious law firms. Instead, after spending a one month internship with Atlanta’s Southern Prisoners Defense Committee helping death row prisoners, he dedicated his life to representing the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned while launching the Equal Justice Initiate (EJI), a non-profit law center dedicated to providing free, quality legal services to the condemned in Alabama, where there is no public defender system and hundreds on death row with no legal representation.

His book is exceptionally readable for a book that discusses significant legal issues. Stevenson writes with no hint of an ego. Even though he has argued six cases before the Supreme Court of the United States and attained a hard-won ruling prohibiting the sentencing of children to life without parole if they are younger than 18 and have not committed murder, he never focuses on himself. His attention is laser-directed on righting immense miscarriages of justice. His stories are all too common: abused children who were prosecuted as adults when they fought back and who then suffered even more horrific abuse when placed in adults facilities, severely mentally disabled persons who spent decades in prison because they could not stand up for themselves, victims of the popular “Three Strikes, You’re Out” laws (one of which was a mother who received a life sentence for writing a invalid check for $150 to buy Christmas presents for her children), and mentally ill persons who needed medical treatment but were imprisoned for life for minor offenses. Along this line, in a particularly heartbreaking account, for eight years a ‘psychiatrist’ at Bryce Hospital in Alabama who evaluated the mental health of hundreds of men and women facing trial was found to be a fraud with no medical credentials whatsoever. Many of those he evaluated remain in prison.

Stevenson’s most disturbing stories tell of instances of justice intentionally denied. Just Mercy is structured around the story of Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to death for a crime he never committed. Using McMillian’s story, Stevenson exposes a world where violence prevails, where prosecution witnesses are utterly unbelievable (giving laughably inconsistent statements after having been blackmailed by law enforcement to give false testimony), where witnesses for the defense are threatened with violence, where racial bias runs rampant, where inmates are tortured with cattle prods, chained with arms high above their head for hours, or forced to endure extreme heat while isolated in sweatboxes, where they are left without medical care, and where prison conditions actually violate the Geneva convention. Were prisoners of war kept in the same manner of confinement, we would be outraged.

As Stevenson’s career began, he worked insane hours defending multiple clients free of charge, but also raising funds to support himself and rent a location for EJI (after the University of Alabama School of Law withdrew their promise to provide free office space); trying to overcome the numerous obstacles that the state kept throwing in his path; and driving hundreds of miles weekly between Atlanta, GA, Tuscaloosa, AL, and multiple prisons around the South. At the same time he’ became a detective, forced to personally investigate cases the state refused to reopen which led to uncovering dramatic evidence––suppressed evidence––of his clients’ innocence.

Strongly influenced by his mother and grandmother, Stevenson speaks of the role faith has played in his own life and in the life of his clients. He believes in redemption for the guilty, writing, “I have discovered, deep within the hearts of many of the condemned and incarcerated people scattered traces of hope and humanity––seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions,” and, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.” Finally, Stevenson reminds us “We all need justice, and––perhaps––we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

Just Mercy was named as one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the Seattle Times. Bishop Desmond Tutu has called Stevenson the Nelson Mandela of the United States. Expect this book to change the way you look at the criminal justice system.