Bryan Stevenson is the visionary founder and executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson mixes commentary and reportage, against the true story of Walter McMillian, an innocent black Alabaman sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman.
Throughout the book, Stevenson provides historical context, as well as his own moral and philosophical reflections on the American criminal justice and penal systems. He ultimately argues that society should choose empathy and mercy over condemnation and punishment.
“Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.”
Just Mercy is centered around presenting the McMillian case, including uncovering police and prosecutorial misconduct, while also weaving in stories of pertinent death-row inmates. Stevenson does this to illustrate the common infringement of victims’ rights, inflexible sentencing laws, and practices of injustice that result in too many juveniles, minorities, and mentally ill people being imprisoned in the United States.
“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”
Throughout the book, Stevenson writes about the histories of different marginalized groups. He describes the racial history of the United States, from slavery through Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the modern era. He argues that efforts to oppress and dominate black people have not ended, but have endured through new institutions and social practices. He argues that mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor people and minorities, is the latest incarnation of systemic racial and economic violence.
“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. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
This is an incredibly well-written and powerful book. I learned a lot by reading it and I highly recommend that you pick it up.