Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Published: 8/18/2015
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit.

Just Mercy By. Bryan Stevenson

Key Insights

Understanding the American criminal justice system is an important part of being a citizen of the states.

The author of “Just Mercy” Bryan Stevenson, a social justice activist, has hands-on experience as a lawyer working inside these complex courtrooms and prison settings.

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”- Bryan Stevenson

With Steveson’s insight, you will learn how the system has evolved from the 80s to now and how the system has treated people of different abilities, races, and gender throughout the years.

Key Points

  • Punishment and Incarceration

The criminal justice system in the United States has been under scrutiny for years. It has been featured in movies, TV shows, and books. But, without all the Hollywood glam, it’s a terribly tragic topic.

Since the 1980s, the American criminal justice system has believed in excessive punishment. This began when the courts began convicting people of minor crimes, but doling out major punishments. It happened this way most often when someone had a criminal background behind them. The problem with this was that a little petty crime, such as shoplifting, could put a person in prison for life.

“An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive, abusive, unjust and unfair until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”- Bryan Stevenson

At the beginning of the decade, there were 41,000 Americans incarcerated for drug-related offenses. But toward the end of the ’80s, the number of Americans exceeded 500,000. This just shows that what was considered fair and right when it came to punishment changed over that ten years. More and more people were being jailed for committing small crimes.

An example of this unfair and severe punishment is from a woman that Stevenson met in the prison system. She was serving a long sentence simply for writing 5 bad checks, all under the amount of $150, in order to purchase, Christmas presents for her children.

Excessive punishments lead to mass incarceration because the prisons become overcrowded.

To put it into perspective, America’s prison population in the early ‘70s was approximately 300,000. Today, it is 2.3 million. And, that’s not even counting the people on parole or probation!

  • The Mistreatment of African-Americans

It’s no secret that African-Americans have become victims in the flawed justice system of America.

Because of the long history of bias in America, African-Americans have always been looked at with extra and unnecessary suspicion.

“Fear and anger are a threat to justice. They can infect a community, a state, or a nation, and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous.”- Bryan Stevenson

Steveson recalls an encounter he had with the Atlanta police. It’s important to know that the author is African-American. The encounter went like this…

Stevenson was parked in his car outside of his house, listening to his favorite band on the radio. Before he could even react, a police car was pulled beside his and a gun was shoved in his face. The police officer searched Steveson’s car illegally and told Steveson that he was lucky he was getting off easy.

This may seem like a bizarre and crazy scenario, but occurrences like this happen all too often in the United States.

African-Americans also often receive unfair trials in the U.S. which is another reason why Steveson was so scared during his own encounter with the police. He knew that many people who looked like him have been convicted and sent to prison for doing no wrong.

The American criminal justice system makes it hard for people of color to prove their innocence.

In the 1880s a Supreme Court ruling determined that denying a juror from performing jury duty for being of a different race was unconstitutional.

But even with that ruling in place, juries remained mostly white until the 1980s. This is because the justice system kept finding reasons for African-Americans not to serve.

This reality made it so African-Americans who were facing trial had to convince a jury full of white people that they were innocent. This was true even in areas with a mostly black population.

  • The System’s Repercussions For Children

The criminal justice system in the U.S. has not only convicted adults, but it has also taken hold of the lives of the youth. Youth as young as 13-years-old. In fact, in the 1980s many children were charged as adults in court.

But, this seems unfair because young people, unlike adults, do not fully understand the crimes they are committing and the consequences associated with them.

For these children, being locked in prison meant facing sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. According to statistics, the chance of an underage prisoner suffering from sexual abuse is five times more likely than one of adult age. And, the only way for a prisoner to be set free from this abuse is to go into solitary confinement.

“What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm’s way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain’t do and send you to death row?”- Bryan Stevenson

In his encounters, Steveson met a young male who spent 18 years in prison in solitary confinement after an armed robbery and an attempted homicide was committed when he was just 13-years-old.

And, life sentences are not all that children were getting before the 90s. Children under 15 were also sentenced to the death penalty until the year 1989. It wasn’t until 2005 that the death sentence for underage felons was demolished altogether.

  • Women and the Justice System

Women have also been mistreated by the American criminal justice system. In fact, between 1980 and 2010, the number of women being incarcerated rose 646%. To put it into further perspective, that’s one and half times higher than the incarceration rate of men.

More than half of the women being imprisoned are there because of drug-related or property-related convictions.

The conditions that women inmates live under is shocking. They are often cramped together with very little room to live. And, they often face abuse from male guards and overheads.

Tutwiler Prison, a prison in Alabama, holds more than twice the amount of women inmates than it was designed to hold when it was built in the 1940s. And, regarding sexual abuse, male guards were allowed in the shower rooms while females were bathing until the 1990s.

Before the law passed, you can imagine how many women suffered sexual abuse from their overheads. And, as a result of sexual abuse, many of the women inmates became pregnant.

Male guards were not punished for the abuse they administered to these women. The worst that would happen to them is that they would have a temporary reassignment.

To make matters worse, many prisons even handcuffed women while they were giving birth in prison. But, a law passed in 2008 to make this illegal as it is inhumane.

  • Mass Incarceration of the Mentally Ill

Because of the closure of many mental health facilities, a great number of mentally ill people got locked up in American prisons.

In the history of America, mentally ill people have always been locked up in some way. Either in a hospital or a prison.

At the turn of the 20th century, many mentally ill people were sent to mental health facilities for committing crimes while they were suffering from their conditions.

“But simply punishing the broken--walking away from them or hiding them from sight--only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”-Bryan Stevenson

And, at the same time, many people were being locked in those facilities for things such as homosexuality and hysteria.

When the 1970s rolled around, many of these facilities closed because they were housing innocent people, not the sick.

However, some of the people in these closing facilities were there for a real mental illness. So, when these actual sick people were released they ended up getting in trouble with the law and being sent to prison.

Today, in America, half of the inmates of the prison system are mentally ill. In fact, prisons hold three times more mentally ill people in America than mental health facilities do.

This is largely due to the fact that in the 1980s court trials, the system didn’t fully understand that a person who is mentally ill has impaired decision-making. They were convicted like any normal person.

But, in 2002, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for people who are mentally ill.

If a mentally ill person was sent to prison, they did not receive the treatment and support they needed.

A gruesome example of this happened at Angola Prison in Louisiana. A prisoner was instructed to put his hands through the bars to be cuffed, however, he was suffering an epileptic convulsion, and could not. The guard subdued him by spraying him with a fire extinguisher.

  • The Consequences of Mass Incarceration

Putting someone in prison has a massive effect on their psyche. It can be a life-changing tragic experience.

Although five years may seem like a fair punishment for the crime committed, it’s important to think about what this could do to a person’s state-of-mind.

For example, Joe Sullivan was put into prison because of a non-homicide crime he took part in when he was just 12-years-old. Throughout his prison sentence, Joe suffered from sexual abuse. This abuse resulted in him trying to commit suicide more than once. He eventually was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is now wheelchair-bound.

Many prisoners suffer greatly in prison from abuse and they come out wondering how they were able to previously administer abuse to others.

But, prisoners aren’t the only ones being affected by this mass incarceration. Families and communities are suffering as well.

Communities are more likely to be affected when the prisoner is from an area that is tight-knit and dense, like an urban Brooklyn neighborhood.

  • The 2000s Reform the American Justice System

Though there has been a lot of bad said about the American criminal justice system, there is a lot of progress being made.

In the early 2000s, life sentences and convictions for the death penalty greatly declined.

In fact, between 1999 and 2010, the number of executions decreased by 50%. And some states such as New York and Maryland got rid of the death penalty altogether.

“The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, do we deserve to kill?”- Bryan Stevenson

In 2010, the Supreme Court said ‘goodbye’ to life imprisonment for children who were under trial for non-homicidal crimes. Then in 2012, life sentences for children were abolished entirely.

This big drop in severe punishment for children caused a drop for severe punishment all around. In 2012, the number of people sent to prison dropped for the first time in over 40 years.

Although there are improvements being made with severe punishment, we cannot ignore the races, genders, and people of different abilities being targeted in the system.

Main Take-Away

America’s criminal justice system has been known throughout history to have both excessive punishment and mass incarceration. African-Americans, women, and the mentally ill have suffered greatly because of the predisposed prejudices of the courts.

About the Author

Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, social justice activist, founder/executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a clinical professor at New York University of School of Law. He has worked to help improve the criminal justice system, specifically how it treats the poor, minorities and children. Under his direction, the Equal Justice Initiative has won major challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

He argued and won multiple cases to achieve Supreme Court decisions that prevent sentencing of children under 10 to death or to life imprisonment without parole.

He initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors over 4000 African Americans lynched in the South from 1877 to 1950. He received the Benjamin Franklin Award from the American Philosophical Society.

He was born in Milton Delaware. When he was sixteen, his maternal grandfather was murdered in Philadelphia during a robbery. The killers were given life sentences. Stevenson said of the murder: "Because my grandfather was older, his murder seemed particularly cruel. But I came from a world where we valued redemption over revenge."

He attended Harvard Law School. He worked for Stephen Bright’s Southern Center for Human Rights, which represents death row inmates throughout the South. He earned a JD from Harvard and a Master’s in Public Policy at the John F Kennedy School of Government.


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