Across the political spectrum, there is growing recognition of the criminal justice system’s failures. But despite some important reforms in recent years, a lot of work still needs to be done, as cruelty and racism continue to infect many aspects of criminal justice. It’s difficult to imagine a more compelling case for tackling these problems than the one found in Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy.”
Stevenson founded and directs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. “Just Mercy” shares his work providing legal assistance to marginalized individuals facing harsh sentences. It gives a damning portrait of the criminal justice system—especially its treatment of the poor, mentally ill and people of color.
The book’s central story is the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian, an African American sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white college student. Numerous alibi witnesses vouched that McMillian was nowhere near the scene of the murder. Yet officials ignored them and built a case against McMillian based on coerced testimony from a witness who later recanted.
Despite facing fierce opposition from prosecutors, Stevenson eventually proved McMillian’s innocence and secured his release from prison in 1993. Sadly, McMillian is far from alone in the injustice he suffered; since 1973, over 160 individuals in the U.S. have been wrongfully sentenced to death and later exonerated.
While sharing McMillian’s story, Stevenson weaves into the narrative other injustices he encounters in his work: clients raped in prison, others brutally beaten by guards and still others executed despite their intellectual disabilities.
Given such abuses, it can be difficult to know where to start. Stevenson has several recommendations: end the death penalty, end life without parole for juveniles, and stop trying juveniles as adults and housing them in adult prisons.
But beyond these recommendations, Stevenson wants to reorient our entire approach to crime. He says no one is disposable or beyond redemption. The traumatic histories of his clients—involving sexual abuse, mental illness, drug addiction and PTSD—produce broken individuals, but ones still worthy of love.
Stevenson comes to this position deeply aware of violence’s effects, having lost his own grandfather to murder. Though the pain of violence easily gives way to fear, he warns against allowing fear to take root, for it leads to policies that destroy lives.
In my opinion, Stevenson’s most memorable story comes in the chapter titled “Mitigation.” When visiting his client Avery Jenkins—an African American with mental illness who was on death row—Stevenson encounters a corrections officer whose truck is covered in Confederate symbols. The officer treats Stevenson rudely and forces him to endure the indignity of a strip search. But after hearing Stevenson speak in court on the abuse Jenkins suffered while a child, the officer’s demeanor changes. He thanks Stevenson for his work and reveals that he also suffered abuse in foster care. The officer even shows kindness to Jenkins by breaking protocol to buy him his favorite food, a chocolate milkshake.
The story highlights the hidden pain others carry. In Stevenson’s words, “we all need mitigation.” When tackling criminal justice reform, we’d be wise to follow this advice and never lose our sense of compassion.
Reviewer Ben Jones is the assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State.
Bryan Stevenson will give a talk at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium at 7 p.m. on March 20. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required.