NewsFeb 28, 2019

Fighting for 'Just Mercy' in a broken system

Criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson combats institutional cruelty and works to raise the most vulnerable to ‘higher ground’

Bryan Stevenson speaks at the podium

At 2.3 million and growing, America has the largest prison population in the world. The Bureau of Justice predicts that one in three black male babies will be incarcerated in their lifetime, and the number of women in prison is on the rise. Yet almost no one is talking about it.

“It worries me that we’ve acculturated ourselves to accept this kind of despair, this kind of bleak outcome,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, author of the best-selling book “Just Mercy" and recipient of an honorary doctorate from Lesley.

Stevenson, who spoke at Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series in Symphony Hall Wednesday night, pressed the audience to do something about the glaring issues of racial inequality and injustice in the criminal justice system.

Get close

Change will only happen by getting close to the problem. Stevenson repeated throughout his lecture, “There’s power in proximity.”

Coming face to face with generational poverty, addiction and dependency, rather than seeing it from afar, brings the inward change that results in making an outward impact on the world, he said.

Stevenson cited his first trip to death row while interning with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia. The young Harvard law student was instructed to tell the center’s client that he wouldn’t be executed that year.

Seated in front of the man who bore marks from newly removed shackles, Stevenson nervously blurted out, “I’m so sorry. I’m just a law student.” But the man’s attitude brightened once Stevenson shared the news that his life was not in immediate danger. At the end of the meeting, guards aggressively re-shackled the man, but the prisoner left singing, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” It was a defining moment for Stevenson.

“When I hear people talk about ‘Make America Great Again,’ I don’t know what decade I’m supposed to want to relive.”
Bryan Stevenson

“Everything changed for me. That was the moment when I realized, I’m going to help condemned people get to higher ground,” said Stevenson. More than 35 years later, he said, “If I’ve made a difference … it’s because I got proximate to a condemned man.”

Change the narrative

Since 1973, 164 people on death row in America have been exonerated, and according to the Equal Justice Initiative, “for every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated.”

Stevenson and his team have been tireless advocates to exonerate and reduce the sentence of death row inmates, the majority of whom are minorities from low-income communities who often had inadequate legal representation.

“I believe the opposite of poverty is justice,” he said.

Mass incarceration and unjust sentencing indicate a larger problem in America’s narrative.

A rhetoric of fear and anger led to, among other problems, the mass incarceration of drug abusers instead of treating addiction as a health crisis. According to Stevenson, it also resulted in juvenile offenders (primarily black and brown kids) being labeled as “superpredators.”

Bryan Stevenson with student Najifa Tanjeem
Lesley student Najifa Tanjeem meets Bryan Stevenson following his lecture.

See more photos from the event.


Some states responded by allowing minors to be tried as adults, including one 9-year-old child sentenced to 50 years in prison for murder. The boy thought he had witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of her abusive boyfriend. Panicking as a pool of blood formed around her unconscious body, the boy went into the bedroom where the man slept and aimed a gun at him. When the man shifted in his sleep, the child was startled and the gun went off.

Because the sleeping man was a deputy sheriff, a judge ruled that the boy should be tried as an adult. Once in prison, he was abused and raped.

“Who is responsible? We are. We allowed these conditions to be created,” said Stevenson, who took on the boy’s case.

Through his advocacy, the child was moved to a juvenile facility and eventually released into the care of a loving family. Many children in similar circumstances, however, have no advocate, and Stevenson has encountered case after case where public defenders failed to protect their clients or pursue important leads.

In Stevenson’s opinion, these issues come down to a problem with how America deals with race, or rather how it vehemently ignores it.

“I don’t think slavery ended in 1865, I think it just evolved,” said Stevenson.

Blacks were barred from voting and threatened, beaten or killed when they tried to register; thousands of lynchings went ignored; and the 6 million blacks who fled the South were treated as migrants instead of refugees fleeing racial terrorism.

Now, Stevenson worries that even the civil rights movement is viewed with a fond, cotton candy lens.

“I worry it’s starting to sound like a three-day carnival,” Stevenson said, joking that he might get in trouble for saying this: “Day one, Rosa Parks gives up her seat on the bus. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington, and on day three we changed all the laws and racism was over.”

People want reconciliation without looking at the truth, and Stevenson said the truth always has to come first.

But with President Donald Trump and supporters chanting the Make America Great Again slogan, there is clear ignorance about America’s long and tortured history of racial inequality, from the genocide of Native Americans to the treatment of African Americans.

Stevenson said, “When I hear people talk about ‘Make America Great Again,’ I don’t know what decade I’m supposed to want to relive.”

Jared Bowen and Bryan Stevenson on stage together, both behind podiums
"I decided I was going to live by grace...that allows you to navigate the threats, the challenges," Stevenson told Jared Bowen.

Stay hopeful

These issues have the stink of hopelessness, but Stevenson exhorted the audience not to give into it.

“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. You’re either hopeful or you’re the problem. Your hope is what will get you to stand up when people say sit down.”

One reason for hope is that Stevenson has seen injustices righted. For example, hours before his lecture the Supreme Court voted to extend Eighth Amendment protections and bar executions for those with dementia and neurological disease.

“I think of it as a win for all of us,” said Stevenson. “We all have a stake in how we treat people who are vulnerable.”

Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient

The Supreme Court ruling came too late for one of Stevenson’s clients who was denied a stay of execution despite having an intellectual disability. Stevenson recalled speaking with the distraught man moments before his death.

When they hung up, Stevenson sat in his office defeated and unsure if he wanted to continue the work. The struggle for justice is uncomfortable and inconvenient, yet “it’s the only way it can work,” he said.  

Stevenson had to acknowledge his own brokenness before he could move on, and that’s a point everyone fighting the persistence of racism, poverty and criminal injustices has to do.

“There will be times when you will cracked and shattered. You will be overwhelmed,” he said. But, “it is in brokenness that we begin to understand the power of redemption.”