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  • InsideTrack
  • May 06, 2015

    Bryan Stevenson: This Public Interest Lawyer Could Change America

    Alabama public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson is a tireless advocate for indigent defendants, prisoners, and kids sentenced to die in prison. But he’s also a powerful voice for change in America’s justice system, and he’s coming to Wisconsin June 25.

    Joe Forward

    Bryan Stevenson

    Legal visionary, Bryan Stevenson, opens the conference speaking on the need for humanitarian change in the prison system in the U.S.

    Photo Credit: Nina Subin

    May 6, 2015 – He’s called “America’s Mandela,” and it’s true that Alabama public interest attorney Bryan Stevenson is a powerful and reasoned voice for change.

    When he’s not representing wrongfully convicted individuals who are waiting to die by execution, or kids sentenced to life in prison, he’s trying to address the failings of America’s justice system, including the consequences of mass incarceration.

    When he’s not writing a New York Times Bestseller about his experiences, he’s serving on a presidential task force on 21st Century policing, commissioned to identify the conflict and distrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

    And when Stevenson is not teaching race and poverty law at New York University Law School, he’s doing what many lawyers set out to do when they first decide to be lawyers: he’s changing the world, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute.

    Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, is bringing his message of change to Wisconsin this summer.

    He’s a featured speaker at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s upcoming Annual Meeting and Conference, June 25-26, at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva.

    The opening speaker, Stevenson will discuss problems in America’s justice system, and how lawyers can help change the narrative that fuels racial inequality, racial disparity, and allows America to accept itself as the biggest incarcerator in the world.

    “I’m interested in talking about lawyering and the way we problem-solve as a community on a range of issues, particularly related to criminal justice reform,” said Stevenson in a phone interview from his EJI office in Montgomery.

    “It’s important to deal more honestly with the way the narrative of racial difference has emerged in our society and undermined our ability to think fairly when it comes to people of color, particularly the boys and men who are suspected or accused of crimes.”

    Righting Wrongs, Urging Mercy

    Stevenson grew up poor in segregated, rural Delaware, in the 1960s and 70s. He graduated from a small college in Pennsylvania, and earned admission to Harvard Law School. In 1983, he took an internship that shaped the course of his professional life.

    As a 23-year-old law student, Stevenson did a one-month legal internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), which assisted people on death row in Georgia. The experience focused Stevenson’s energy in a clearly defined way.

    “My short time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system, that maybe we judge some people unfairly,” Stevenson writes in his bestselling book, Just Mercy, released in 2014.

    “The more I reflected on the experience, the more I recognized that I had been struggling my whole life with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly.”

    Now, Stevenson works through the nonprofit EJI to litigate on behalf of indigent defendants, including those with wrongful conviction cases, juveniles facing adult treatment for crimes, and others impacted by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

    Just Mercy details his representation of a death row inmate. Just recently, Stevenson and other EJI lawyers won a long fight to exonerate Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row for two murders he did not commit.

    The case drew national attention. Stevenson and EJI also litigate cases on behalf of imprisoned kids, working toward changes in sentencing laws for juveniles.

    In 2011, Stevenson was at the Wisconsin Supreme Court, arguing that sentencing children under the age of 15 to life in prison with no possibility of parole, even for first-degree homicide, is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional.

    In Wisconsin, persons age 10 and older are subject to adult treatment for first-degree murder, and sentencing courts have discretion to impose life without parole sentences.

    Stevenson lost, but won a landmark juvenile law case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. In Miller v. Alabama (consolidated with Jackson v. Hobbs), the court sided with Stevenson in ruling that mandatory sentencing laws that put children under 18 in prison for life with no possibility of parole, even for murder, are unconstitutional.

    The ruling did not impact Wisconsin, which leaves sentencing decisions to the discretion of the judge. But Stevenson believes that states like Wisconsin, which have the discretion to impose life sentences on kids as young as 10, should reconsider.

    “I just don’t think that there are any 10 or 11 year olds that should be prosecuted as adults,” he said. “I really do believe there should be a minimum age for trying kids as adults, and it should be substantially higher than 10. I certainly count Wisconsin among the states where there is a need for reform when it comes to prosecuting children.”

    “Even when kids don’t get prosecuted as adults, the fact that they are threatened with that can potentially be an issue that shapes the process and treatment that they get,” he said. ”It’s coercive and inconsistent with child status and protecting child rights.”

    Truth and Reconciliation

    Providing legal representation to the wrongly convicted, minors facing life, and other indigent individuals, is only one aspect of Stevenson’s work. Through his words, Stevenson is moving the country to address the truth of America’s past racism, and begin the process of reconciliation.

    In 2012, Stevenson delivered a TED Talk about the failings of America’s justice system, mass incarceration, and racial inequality. It has generated more than 2.2 million Internet views and received the longest standing ovation in the conference’s 30-year history.

    He notes that mass incarceration – about 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., a number that has quadrupled over in four decades – has collateral consequences. And he notes that indigent persons often face unequal treatment.

    “We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” Stevenson said in his TED Talk.

    Stevenson also notes racial disparities in the justice system. African-Americans are imprisoned at least eight times as often as whites. One-in-three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. According to a 2013 study, black males in Wisconsin are 10 times more likely than white males to serve time.

    But why? Stevenson says minorities, especially black men, are subject to implicit bias that impacts arrest, charging, conviction, and sentencing decisions. This bias is the product of a narrative that treats African-Americans as more capable of crime.

    “It’s about understanding the way our history of racial inequality has set us up to carry around a narrative of racial difference, making it harder for people of color when accused or suspected of crimes,” said Stevenson during a phone interview.

    “This narrative creates a presumption of guilt or a presumption of dangerousness, which can lead to implicit bias,” he said. “We are just so used to thinking in this way that we don’t even appreciate the way its influencing justice, or creating injustices.”

    In order to address this bias, and change the narrative that leads to it, Stevenson says America and its communities must confront its dark past.

    “It really does begin with slavery and the way in which we never dealt with it,” Stevenson said. “The country created a different legal relationship to people of color than to people who are in the majority, and we never honestly addressed that history.”

    Joe ForwardJoe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

    “Then we had decades of lynching and racial violence in the Deep South, but it had implications for states like Wisconsin, too,” he said. “The African-Americans that came to Milwaukee came as refugees from terror. We never dealt with that history.”

    Even the conversation about segregation, Stevenson said, was complicated by a narrative of fear and anger that communities did not confront.

    “I don’t think we committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation in a way that we should have following the civil rights activism of the 1960s,” he said. “That just left us vulnerable to the narrative that undermines our ability to be fair with one another in the current workings of the criminal justice system. It’s part of the long historical arc of our country’s struggles with racial inequality that have given rise to these issues.”

    As a way to confront the past, EJI published a recent report titled, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report notes that almost 4,000 African-American men, women, and children were victims of “terror lynchings” in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, and documents some of the horrific details involved.

    The report urges American communities to address oppressive histories and “concretize the experience through discourse, memorials, monuments, and other acts of reconciliation” to “overcome the shadows cast by these grievous events.”

    Helping Solve Issues

    Stevenson, referred to as “America’s Mandela” by South Africa’s Desmond Tutu – who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his opposition to apartheid – is a tireless advocate for addressing the past in order to change the future of criminal justice.

    But he’s also living in the present, helping America deal with big issues involving race, including those that are impacting communities across Wisconsin.

    Earlier this year, President Barack Obama appointed Stevenson to a task force on 21st Century policing, commissioned to address concern and protest after police arrests in New York and Missouri resulted in the deaths of two young African-American men.

    That task force’s report was released in March, the same month that a Madison police officer shot and killed a 19-year-old black man, Tony Robinson, and preceding waves of recent protests and riots in Baltimore after a young black man died in police custody.

    In short, Stevenson is entrenched in helping America address important issues about poverty, race, and a criminal justice system that does not always create justice for all. And he says Wisconsin lawyers are powerful allies in solving issues of the day.

    “Lawyers can be proactive in eliminating and challenging bias,” he said. “We should be pushing to diversity the bar and the bench, and we have to educate people about our history, and how it has shaped the challenges that are real in communities of color.”

    Bryan Stevenson’s Annual Meeting and Conference address is made possible through a grant from the Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

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