Just Mercy

This is a fantastic memoir by Bryan Stephenson, a talented and impressive lawyer who has argued in defense of (frequently innocent) death-row inmates for 30 years. It is a heart-wrenching story at times, expertly told as stories about inmates who were often wrongly convicted, but sometimes convicted of adolescent crimes but charged punitively as adults. It centers in Alabama, with the expected overwhelming layers of racism that one might expect, but he also talks about working on similar cases in most other states; basically, everybody is complicit in this. It’s a fairly staggering take on how unjust our justice system is, and how badly it could use a significant correction. Prison reform was a very popular topic in 2016 and seemed to be making great bipartisan headway — and then Trump was elected, and that effort basically fell by the wayside. It would be wonderful if it were picked up again in the near future.

The author tells about his experience setting up the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit focused on racial injustice and assisting poor convicts. His early focus was on death row in the 1980s, as it was becoming acceptable to kill prisoners again. He found that many of those sentenced to death were given poor counsel, and discovered a number of cases where the prosecution had cajoled others to testify falsely against someone, thus convicting an innocent person. He was able to reverse or gain a new trial for quite a few people, and in his later years had the opportunity to argue a few cases before the US Supreme Court. His efforts helped to acknowledge that a sentence of life in prison without parole for minors was cruel and unusual punishment, specifically when a non-murder had been the charge. Stephenson brought forward advancements in psychology and human development, specifically about the risk-taking in teenage years and the development of the brain into the young 20s. In addition, he brought sociology into account, arguing that given the poor and dire circumstances many of these convicts were raised in — with abusive step-fathers or addicted mothers — they were reacting to situations rather than initiating, which would deserve a little more leniency. It seems that the country is beginning to catch up to his way of thinking, which I would argue is a very good thing.

The author also decries the prison building boom of the 1990s, which grew in parallel with the war on drugs and increasingly punitive mandatory sentences (the ‘three strikes’ law was passed during this time as well). He cites statistics of 650% increases in prison populations over 30–40 years, the disproportionate majority being poor and minority; he talks about the insufficient availability of public defenders and the frequently pitiful payments offered to defend those who cannot pay themselves; and explains how the need to find a criminal in high-profile cases can lead officers to make up a story rather than follow where the evidence leads (not very often, certainly, but it does happen). I really enjoyed this audio book, and highly recommend it to anybody interested in law and justice.

My big takeaway is that our society needs significant prison reform, and that large swaths of our current prison population could be released under a significant reform action. A few actions in recent years have taken baby steps in this direction: Obama commuting sentences for marijuana offenses, for example, or states raising the limit on what is a punishable volume of drugs. But there is much work to do, and I am happy great people like Bryan Stephenson are working on it.