Every American should read Just Mercy: A Tale of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Here's why.
As a consumer of news and a reasonably well-read person, I am aware — in a detached way — that the country’s approach to imprisonment is deeply flawed. One can’t look at statistics about the skyrocketing increase of people imprisoned in the United States in the past few decades without concluding that something has gone terribly awry. I know in an abstract, dispassionate way that this likely is due in part to policies related to mandatory sentencing and the misguided war on drugs. But to be honest, I have never confronted the role of both poverty and racism in creating and sustaining the current horror.
Just Mercy opened my eyes, then broke my heart but still managed to stitch it up enough to leave me inspired. That’s a pretty strong outcome for one book.
The United States leads the world in the number of people per capita incarcerated. That alone is disturbing but consider these facts from The Sentencing Project. There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last 40 years. People of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. One in three African American men will be imprisoned during his the life; for white men, only one in 17 will. For women, it’s worse. One in 111 white women will be imprisoned compared to one in 18 black women.
Also from The Sentencing Project: African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.
In the face of such shattering statistics, it's a quick footrace to the conclusion that individual action to catalyze change would be impotent. I am not a lawyer; I don’t know anyone in prison. What can I do?
Just Mercy contributed to changing that calculus by bringing me up close to men and women who have been terribly wronged by our system of justice and, through story telling, illustrating how racism and indifference to economic context poisons us all. Stevenson’s writing let me get to know people on death row wrongly convicted with trumped up evidence, to witness children imprisoned for life for crimes committed as desperate, unloved minors, and to despair for people lost in the dark shadows of the criminal justice system serving out sentences wildly disproportionate to their initial crime. In other words, Just Mercy brings the statistics to life.
Reflecting on these stories, it seems that overt racism is perhaps the most straightforward, if painful, aspect of this issue to unravel and reverse. We see through the author’s eyes the actions of people we empower to act ethically and responsibly as our representatives who, instead, rig evidence and create procedural obstacles because someone has to take the blame for an unsolved crime. And why not the black man? The implications of individual racism are deeply problematic and hard to undo, but surfacing these behaviors allows steps to be taken, however painfully slow, to fix it within the context of our judicial system. But racism is not always overt.
An anecdote Stevenson shared sticks with me. One day, he sat in a closed courtroom reviewing his notes at the defense table in preparation for a hearing about to begin. The judge and prosecutor walked into the courtroom through the back door, stopped, took one look at Stevenson and demanded he leave, telling him to go wait outside with the other defendants. These white men assumed he was the prisoner, not the attorney — because Stevenson is black. When Stevenson let them know he was the defense attorney, they all had a good laugh. But inside, Stevenson was not laughing. How could he laugh? Yet he knew if he challenged or chastised the judge, he could potentially hurt his client’s chances in the hearing.
Over time, perhaps such insidious racism will diminish as the next generation rises to the challenges of our society; we can hope a judge and prosecutor of the future would be mortified at the shallowness of their own assumptions. Yes, we can hope. What’s much harder to challenge are the countless examples Stevenson provides of systemic embedded racism, such as when juries are all white, or when communities of color experience disproportionate prosecution of drug crimes, or when defendants — of any color — without the means to pay private attorneys get lost in an underfunded public defense labyrinth, landing in the farthest reaches of the prison system without the ability or legal recourse to protest a carelessly unjust conviction or a ludicrously long sentence. On top of this, of course, is a broader philosophical uncertainty in the absence of clear evidence that the threat of incarceration meaningfully delivers a benefit to society by reducing crime at all. Perhaps all it achieves is to conveniently warehouse people deemed undesirable in the current cultural moment. We must be willing to wrestle with these foundational issues.
At a structural level, Just Mercy is coherently organized, making it an easy book to read, despite the topic. Stevenson is a plain-prose writer and relies on reconstructed dialogue to bring stories alive. Using his own coming of age legal journey and awakening as a framework, the book mixes compelling personal stories about people he has represented throughout his career in the south with information about the legal process, incarceration trends and perspectives on historical and cultural forces as well as policies and procedures influencing outcomes. He has a good eye for balancing anecdotes in ways that illuminate dense legal concepts and thorny procedural rabbit holes.
Paradoxically, the brutal honesty of Just Mercy could reinforce the sense of “what can I possibly do in the face of such preponderant systemic injustice?” In lesser hands, that might happen. But in Stevenson’s gentle, non-didactic and frank telling, Just Mercy achieves the opposite. Awareness is a first step and Just Mercy is a wake-up call. As Americans, we must all be concerned with ensuring a fair judicial system in which all people, no matter their background or economic circumstances, have good representation initially before sentencing. Why? Because this is the bedrock on which the long-term health of our democracy rests.
What can we as individuals do specifically? Whatever we can. Some of us can take up advocacy. Others can insist that our state and federal representatives address these challenges. Some can write opinion pieces. Those with means can provide financial support to the important work of Bryan Stevenson, his heroic colleagues and others like him. But perhaps the most foundational thing we can do is right in front of us. Every citizen of this country will one day be called to be a juror. Be an informed, engaged juror. Question testimony, the process and the assumptions. To do that, read Just Mercy first.