Mass Incarceration, Harsh Punishment and Confronting Injustice:
The Demand for Global Reform.
By Bryan Stevenson
I believe that each person is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done. Our lives, our purpose and our value as human beings cannot be reduced to a single act, even an act that is tragic with profound and devastating consequences. No one is only the crime they commit. For me this conviction has evolved over 25 years providing legal assistance to condemned prisoners on death row and challenging extreme sentences imposed on marginalized people, especially the poor, children and people who are disadvantaged.
Mass incarceration and the politics of fear and anger have made America’s criminal justice system increasingly unreliable, less responsive to error and frequently corrupted by the abuse of power. Aiding people who are wrongly convicted or sentenced and pursuing reform of policies that unnecessarily contribute to despair, inequality and injustice has always felt necessary and essential.
I believe that America’s history of racial discrimination and the legacy of slavery, racial terrorism and segregation continues to cloud our ability to treat all people fairly. We have not truthfully confronted the costs, the trauma and the burden that our ugly and brutal history has created and we have not fully committed ourselves to eradicating the bigotry and bias that has been bred and tolerated in our country. So, my work has also focused heavily on eliminating and challenging racial discrimination and thinking about remedies and recovery for disempowered communities of color that are demoralized and discouraged.
Finally, I am persuaded that extreme poverty cannot be reconciled with justice. Poverty in America is frequently a consequence of failing to protect basic human dignity and an abdication of our responsibility to meet the basic needs of everyone. There are economic and social structures and political conditions that frequently create, sustain and perpetuate extreme poverty that must be re-examined and reformed to create a just society. This has thus become a focus of my work.
In 1989, we began a non-profit law project in Alabama which has grown into the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). My life and work at EJI has at times been extremely challenging and overwhelming. There is a profound absence of hope in many of the jails, prisons, courtrooms and communities where I have worked. I’ve seen many despised and broken people condemned, discarded and destroyed by fear, anger and ignorance. I’ve seen bigotry and discrimination undermine justice and fracture the lives and aspirations of too many people. I’ve also seen violence and despair create tragedy and needless victimization.
However, I’ve also been extremely fortunate. My life and work has been enriched by people whose humility and perseverance knows no measure. I have been the beneficiary of untold acts of kindness and mercy. I have been granted more grace than I deserve.
Dostoyevsky wrote that “truth crushed to Earth shall rise again,” and I have witnessed that phenomenon in some of our cases. Martin Luther King proclaimed that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice” and I have experienced that in our struggle to help the poor and the condemned. Jesus said that one day “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and I have seen this transformation in communities where hope has been resurrected and the powerless have found their voice.
It is a privilege to advocate for human rights and to fight for the dignity of every human being. I am blessed to stand with incarcerated people, the poor, the disabled, even the despised and rejected on death row. I am persuaded that you judge the character and civility of a country not by how it treats the rich, the privileged and the powerful. Rather, you judge a nation by how it treats the poor, the imprisoned and the condemned. And so, the work goes on.