Bryan Stevenson addresses problems in the criminal justice system and how to fix them during his opening plenary.
June 26, 2015 – If we want more justice in America, we need to get closer to the injustices that are happening in our communities. “We cannot create justice from a distance,” said Alabama-based public interest attorney Bryan Stevenson, who kicked off the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting and Conference yesterday.
Stevenson, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery and author of a NYT Bestseller entitled Just Mercy, inspired a packed house with his talk, “American Injustice, Mercy, Humanity, and Making Difference.”
EJI provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the justice system. Among EJI’s clients are condemned individuals on death row, the wrongly accused, and children sentenced to die in prison.
Through his powerful words, Stevenson is also moving the country to address the problems perpetuating mass incarceration and its collateral consequences.
“There are parts of Milwaukee, Madison, and rural Wisconsin where there’s suffering, despair, and hopelessness,” Stevenson said. “We’re not going to solve those problems until we get close. Proximity is an essential feature of change.”
Stevenson says we need to face our identities. Are we an American society that wants justice and equality? If so, we’ve got to get close to the problems, change the narratives that are sustaining injustices like discrimination and bias. We also need to stay hopeful, he says, and be willing to go outside our comfort zones to make change happen.
Members had the opportunity for a meet and greet with Stevenson prior to his speech.
Stevenson noted some staggering statistics. With 2.3 million people in jails and prisons today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. contains 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated persons.
The percentage of women sent to prison has increased 640 percent in the last 20 years, he said, and 70 percent of the women sent to prison now are single parents with minor children. One-in-three black male babies born today are expected to be incarcerated.
“And when these women go to jails and prisons, their children are much more likely to end up in jail or prison as a child of an incarcerated parent,” said Stevenson, noting the great collateral consequences of incarceration as a primary means of punishment.
In Alabama today, 31 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote as a result of a criminal conviction, he said. “We haven’t seen levels of disenfranchisement like this since before the passage of the Voting Rights Act.”
Millions of people with criminal arrests are permanently marginalized, disfavored for loans and employment, he said. Meanwhile, the country spent $80 billion on prisons and jails last year, money that could be used for education or health and human services.
Changing the Narrative
Stevenson says the problems of inequality, unfairness, bias, and discrimination are sustained by the narratives behind these problems. “We’ve got to change the narrative when it comes to confronting the problems that we feel most deeply about. If we don’t focus on changing the narratives, our efforts to solve problems will be undermined.”
As an example, he says America has perpetuated a narrative about children who commit crimes. In the 1980s, he says, criminologists had a misguided idea that children, mostly children of color, were not “children” when it came to the commission of crimes.
“They said they may look like kids, they may talk like kids, they may act like kids, but we should not be deceived. These are not children. These are ‘superpredators.’
“That demonization was very influential, as every state changed laws to lower the minimum age for trying children as adults, including Wisconsin,” Stevenson said.
Following his plenary, Stevenson signed copies of his book, Just Mercy, for State Bar members.
Today, there are 250,000 adults serving time for crimes committed as kids. Some are serving life without parole sentences. There are 10,000 children serving sentences in adult jails and prisons. The U.S. is the only country in the world that condemns children to die in prison, Stevenson noted, telling a sad story about one 14-year-old boy.
“I asked myself, who is responsible for this? And the answer is: we are. We’ve allowed a narrative that suggests that all children are not children. And because of that, we’ve done these destructive things. I believe in a just society, all children are children.
“We’ve got to do more to protect the vulnerable in our system,” said Stevenson, noting that 50 percent of people in jails and prisons suffer from mental illness.
Stevenson said mass incarceration has been fueled by these narratives of fear and anger. “I think we’ve been misled by politicians who want everybody afraid and angry because the truth is when you are angry and afraid, you won’t worry about the law. You’ll step back from the protections that require fairness and equality.
“Look at any country where there’s been oppression, inequality, and abuse of power, and there’s a country that has used a narrative of fear and anger to tolerate things that are intolerable, to put up with disparities based on race, bias, and economic status.”
We also have to change the narrative about race, Stevenson said. He says we have all inherited a legacy of racial inequality. “The narrative of racial difference has been passed along from generation to generation, and we’ve got to change the narrative.”
Stevenson says we have to talk about slavery in America. “We created a narrative of white supremacy to legitimate slavery. We wanted our slave owners to not feel immoral or unchristian while they owned other human beings, so we made up these ideas about people of color. We used that narrative of racial difference to legitimate slavery.”
“Slavery didn’t really end in 1865, it just evolved,” said Stevenson, noting that the Emancipation Proclamation did not end the narrative of racial difference in America.
He told the story of one judge who told him to leave the courtroom while he prepared for a hearing, possibly thinking a black man could not be there as a lawyer for a client.
Lawyers, Stevenson said, can be leaders on changing the narrative and seeking justices where injustices exist, and must remain hopeful that change is possible.
“Members of the legal profession have a particular responsibility to change the world, to create more justice and hope in our communities, to do something that really advances fairness. That’s the great privilege of being a member of the bar,” he said.