The death sentence, and the heartbreak and devastation of this miscarriage of justice had created permanent injuries.
– Bryan Stevenson
Why I picked up this book:
I have wanted to read this book for some time now. As conversations about mass incarceration continue to increase—even in the church—I find that ignorance about this topic can lead to a poor choice of words, complacency, and the devaluing of lives of too many innocent people.
While I see human trafficking or modern-day slavery as a sin against humanity that needs confrontation both internationally and domestically. Immigration reform and mass incarceration are injustices that we must address at home.
Who Should Read Just Mercy:
Anyone who has a heart and ear to listen and learn.
What’s in Store for You:
This is a book of stories and with great depth. Bryan Stevenson is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) (on Twitter) in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. EJI is a nonprofit law center that is “dedicated to providing free, quality legal services to condemned men and women on death row in Alabama.” I first heard Mr. Stevenson speak a few years ago at the Justice Conference, and have continued to follow his work, interviews, and speeches online.
Just Mercy gives us the motivation behind Stevenson’s passion and his work. He is motivated by the fundamental truth about the value of every human life regardless of skin color or personal wealth. He has been changed by the lives and stories of real people, and compelled that when needed, these broken people didn’t have someone to call on for help.
In addition to sharing stories of the convicted—often innocent people (some who found justice and others who didn’t)—and offering a legal history and education, Stevenson gifts readers with the precious jewels of history from the African American experience and church.
Throughout the book, he also shares hard realities about our prison system.
The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today [time of publication is 2014]…We’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison…We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated in apparently too kind and compassionate.
Much of the book covers the adult life and story of Mr. Walter McMillian. I won’t reveal the details because I want you to read this New York Times best seller if you haven’t done so already.
Mass incarceration and the death penalty is a problem that negatively impacts people of color, poor people, military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, those with mental illness, women, children, and the families and communities who love them.
My personal take-aways?
As a Christian, I understand the depravity of humanity. And I also agree with Stevenson that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Into our lives comes the incarnate Jesus with a message of love, grace, and just mercy. When we do wrong, we must be held accountable for our actions and there are consequences for our choices. God’s justice maintains right order in society and communal relationships. However, we must understand that not only are people broken, our systems and structures are also broken. This reality is at the heart of the incarceration conversation.
Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed. Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison…The privatization of prison health care, prison commerce, and a range of services has made mass incarceration a money-making windfall for a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.
When I read this information, I don’t first wonder, “What is wrong with those we have labeled as ‘criminals’?” As a country that prides itself on innovation, free enterprise, and capitalism, I wondered, “What in the world is wrong with us that we have valued all of these ‘rights’ above the lives of fellow human beings?” And of course, the rights for some does not always equal the rights for all. This is a conversation about power—those who have it (often through wealth) and those who don’t.
We are responsible for how well we steward the power God has given us through our education, money, vote, relationships, work, and use of our voices.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others…It’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure of unmerited grace.
“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?…I do what I do because I’m broken too…Being broken is what makes us human.” – Bryan Stevenson @eji_org
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” – Bryan Stevenson @eji_org
“Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.” – Bryan Stevenson @eji_org
“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” – Bryan Stevenson
“The death penalty can be imposed fairly only after carefully considering all the reasons why death might not be the appropriate sentence.” – Bryan Stevenson
“I couldn’t stop thinking that we don’t spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves.” – Bryan Stevenson
“Jail and prison became the state’s strategy for dealing with a health crisis created by drug use and dependency…Today [2014 publication], over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United Sates have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population.” – Bryan Stevenson
“We’re supposed to sentence people fairly after fully considering their life circumstance, but instead we exploit the inability of the poor to get the legal assistance they need—all so we can kill them with less resistance.” – Bryan Stevenson
Next Up on This Topic:
I just finished the September 2016 issue of Christianity Today magazine, which focuses on prison ministry, mass incarceration, and critical justice reform. It features the stories and work of Meia Walker, and Dominique Gilliard. I highly recommend getting a copy and reading this issue. I know that Shane Claiborne is also doing work, writing, and speaking out against the death penalty. These are some other leaders in the movement to assist us in learning more and responding rightly to this issue.
At some point, I’m going to also read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander.
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2016