In Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Bryan Stevenson, recounts his experiences working to appeal the sentences of prison inmates, particularly those on death row. While this book was another on my books to read list for quite some time, the current atmosphere of race relations is what prompted me to order Stevenson’s book and dive right in to the narrative of privilege and prejudice in the American justice system.
Stevenson is a captivating storyteller. Remarkably, he was able to describe his experiences defending some of the poorest, overlooked, and many times forgotten condemned men and women with factual vulnerability, rather than playing into the heightened drama of other crime-based books. Stevenson’s goal in creating EJI was to acquit, or at the very least, change the sentencing of men and women on death row, especially those who clearly hadn’t received a fair trial. Eventually, the work of EJI expanded to include challenging the U.S. Supreme Court to constitutionally ban life imprisonment without parole sentences for convicted children and develop programs for integrating former inmates back to society.
The anecdotes Stevenson recounted were raw and heartbreaking. If the current cultural climate hasn’t shown us enough lately, Just Mercy drives the point home that humans are capable of treating humans VERY poorly. Hurt people hurt other people. Some of the hurt is driven by honest mistakes, implicit bias and sheer ignorance, but much of it is done with malicious intent to inflict harm physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and relationally.
Just Mercy addressed underlying issues of racism and economic disparity in the differences in how the accused are defended, tried, and sentenced. But considering that Stevenson’s work primarily involved appealing the process, much of the book covered the
“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent … Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau 2015)
Reading Just Mercy felt like I was diving into a supplementary text for a college course. The book was full of historical perspectives as well as glimpses into socio-economic tensions that have plagued the United States since the inception of the country. But, at its heart, Just Mercy was an appeal for society to be better and do better for the sake of humanity. Stevenson’s writing called the reader to consider how we treat each other and what might need to happen for things to change.
“There was no excuse for him to have shot someone, but it didn’t make sense to kill him. I began to get angry about it. Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right?”Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau 2015)
Although I don’t work in the criminal justice field and I have relatively little impact on making changes within the system, Just Mercy still encouraged me to consider how my implicit biases influence my perceptions of people; to count my blessings for growing up in a stable environment; to expand my worldview and look for ways I can contribute to righting the wrongs that I (and the rest of humanity) continue to commit; and to pray for people like Bryan Stevenson and the revolutionary work he and his team are accomplishing.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”Micah 6:8 | Bible, English Standard Version
You may like this book if you also like: Just Mercy (movie); 13th (movie); Dead Man Walking (movie); Shawshank Redemption (movie); When They See Us (tv series); A Long Way Gone (book); Good News About Injustice (book, Gary Haugen 1999);