Last year, I sat in my car in the supermarket car park listening to a radio interview with Bryan Stevenson, who was in Australia to speak at the Perth Writers Festival. His story of his work as a civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was distressing, infuriating and inspiring. His excellent book, Just Mercy, fleshes out the stories he touched on the interview but also serves to illuminate a raft of issues in the American criminal justice and social welfare systems.
As a young law student in 1983, Stevenson undertook an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defence Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta. As executions began to take place again in the Deep South after years of delay, the SPDC worked to provide proper legal representation to condemned prisoners who had been convicted without proper or no legal representation. A visit to a prisoner on death row brought home to Stevenson the grave injustices of the legal system towards indigent and coloured prisoners. As he explains
Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.
In the late 1980s, he established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to assist prisoners facing execution and, over time, this has expanded to tackling issues of mass incarceration, juvenile imprisonment, programs to assist those re-entering society after imprisonment, and the provision of policy advice on issues related to race, poverty and crime.
He explores a number of cases he has been involved in, with that of Walter McMillian being the thread that runs through the book. Walter, an African American, was wrongly convicted of the murder of a white woman and sentenced to death. For me, this case exposed enormous issues with the criminal justice system: racial bias, the ability of judges to overturn sentences imposed by a jury, the dangers of having elected judges/sheriffs/district attorneys, the corrupting effect of deals with witnesses, and the sheer incompetence and bias of some of those working in the legal profession. The appalling result in this case was even worse than the apparent injustice in Making a Murderer. Spoiler alert – after six years on death row, and thanks to the tireless work of Stevenson and his team, Walter was exonerated. Whilst this was great cause for celebration, the sobering thought, as Stevenson points out, is that Walter’s case only came to his attention because he was on death row. If the judge had not overturned the jury’s sentence of 30 years and imposed the death penalty, Walter would have spent his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Stevenson exposes the treatment of juveniles in the justice system. How is it that children as young as 13 can be sentenced to life imprisonment? How can children be imprisoned in adult prisons with all the risks that that entails? For Ian Manuel, a 13 year old when convicted, this meant spending 18 years in solitary confinement as this was the only way to keep him safe from other prisoners. The work of the EJI has seen the courts, over time, prohibit life in prison sentences for children.
Harsh sentencing laws for drug and minor offences has seen an explosion in the prison population with the consequence that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. This has created massive overcrowding in prisons but also has led to social disadvantage becoming entrenched. Parents are removed from their children, those convicted of drug offences are not entitled to welfare or public housing, felons are disenfranchised. How are people able to rise above social disadvantage when society is not assisting them in any way?
As an outsider to the US, I have read about police shootings of black men, the college riots and the Black Lives Matter Movement. I understood that racism remains an issue in the country. Reading this book showed just how entrenched this racism – hatred – is in some parts of the country and the devastating consequences this has for many African Americans. It made me think about how the proliferation of guns in the US has enabled so many people to become murderers where, without such access, they may have committed less serious crimes, or no crime at all. It made me appreciate the social welfare, health and justice systems we have in Australia (although there have been some devastating failures in our parole system) but it also made me think about how these systems are treating, or not treating, our indigenous people. It is a book that made me want to learn.
I am in awe of the work carried out by Bryan Stevenson and his team of lawyers. In the absence of societal support, it is essential to have people prepared to fight for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised; to provide them with a voice and to give them the opportunity to live life to their fullest potential. A highly recommended read for those interested in social justice and social policy.
If you are interested in issues of race and/or the failings of the US justice system, you may like to have a listen to the first part of My Damn Mind and Anatomy of Doubt. Indigenous incarceration and disadvantage is explored in this excellent article by Sarah Gill